New Music Breaks Out Into Infektion! At The Staatsoper : NPR FM Berlin Blog 104,1's classical music writer Rebeca Schmid has a review of the Schiller Theater's Infektion! This is the Staatsoper's first season at its temporary home in the Schiller Theater.
NPR logo New Music Breaks Out Into Infektion! At The Staatsoper

New Music Breaks Out Into Infektion! At The Staatsoper

German stage director Christoph Schlingensief died of cancer two days before performances of Jens Joneleit's Metanoia—über das Denken hinaus were scheduled to begin. Monika Rittershaus hide caption

toggle caption
Monika Rittershaus

German stage director Christoph Schlingensief died of cancer two days before performances of Jens Joneleit's Metanoia—über das Denken hinaus were scheduled to begin.

Monika Rittershaus

Contemporary repertoire, not always the easiest of sells for an opera house, has framed the Staatsoper's first season at its temporary home in the Schiller Theater this year.

Last October, the world premiere of Jens Joneleit's Metanoia—über das Denken hinaus inaugurated the premises, although not under the most upbeat of circumstances. The opera quickly became a German requiem for stage director Christoph Schlingensief, who died of cancer two days before performances were scheduled to begin.

Although the semi-staged performance met with widespread skepticism among local viewers and international critics alike, the Staatsoper was not afraid to reprise the opera at the onset of its contemporary opera festival Infektion! this month, named after a curious line in Metanoia.

We'll never know how the opera would have materialized had the provocateur director survived to complete the collaboration. However, the elusive, fragmentary nature of the production, as seen on July 2nd, seemed to lie primarily with an amorphous, self-indulgent libretto by René Pollesch.

Drawing upon the Apollonian/Dionysian duality on which Friedrich Nietzsche based his Birth of Tragedy, the text amounts to a series of meandering philosophical exchanges between five unnamed singers and an actor, the climax of which is nothing but the clichéd tenet "cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am).

Surely a text that purports to explore "the reality of the individual" with regard to the "abstraction of the Apollonian dream" could have come up with something better. As it were, the opera was performed to a half-empty house.

Joneleit's music erupts in explosive melodic patterns, at times receding into ruminations over the philosophical utterances onstage. Live-Electronic also serves as another realm of open-ended musical contemplation.

The Infektion! attacked Music Director Daniel Barenboim earlier that evening, who was forced to cede the podium to his assistant, David Coleman, due to a cold. Coleman rose admirably to the task, leading the orchestra in a mostly tight, dynamic performance of the approximately 70-minute opera.

Even when Barenboim is not present, the Staatskapelle seems to have absorbed the vibrancy and depth with which he imbues every phrase.

The cast of singers also left little to be desired. Daniel Schmutzhard sang elegantly as the Bass Baritone, and the powerfully-voiced Graham Clark brought needed theatrical thrust in the role of the Character Tenor. Carola Höhn gave a strong vocal performance as the Soprano, yet did not anchor the role with sufficient dramatic abstraction.

Anna Prohaska sang magnetically as the Coloratura Soprano, receding into the woodwork of an unknown Apollonian dream when it was called of her. Alfred Reiter rounded out the ensemble nicely as the Bass.

As the actor, Martin Wuttke was an appropriately austere yet curious figure in a toga. The chorus, fit out in skin-toned teletubby-like costumes, fulfilled its role dutifully, even if one had trouble discerning the deeper meaning of their utterances.

Schlingensief's incomplete staging—a series of oversized organs juxtaposed with a wooden structure and black-and-white film footage projected in the background—brought attention to the contrast of the bodily with the worldly, or a Dionysian urge that struggles to reconcile itself with the forces of reality. If only the Apollonian had restored some reason to the production's purpose.

The Berlin premiere of Peter Eötvös' Tri Sestri, as seen on July 7th, brought more coherence to the notion of contemporary opera. The work has enjoyed some success in Europe since its 1997 premiere in Lyon and was most recently performed last year at Münich's Prinzregententheater, which co-commissioned this production by the English stage director Rosamund Gilmore.

Based on the famous Chekhov play Three Sisters, the opera depicts the frustrated struggle of the young women to find happiness within the confines of their bourgeois existence, far removed from the dream of Moscow, where the family once resided.

Irina, who is at the center of the drama, longs to return to the big city and find true love. Her sister, Olga, convinces her to marry Baron Tusenbach, but he is then killed in a duel. The opera comes full circle to the trio of sisters in their initially melancholy state, having said farewell to a brigade of departing soldiers.

Eötvös' music creates an authentically dark, brooding mood, underscoring the characters' sentiments with sinewy, minimalist lines and cacophonic outbursts. Open, lingering dissonant harmonies convey societal isolation and unfulfilled dreams, while poignant melodies break through the surface.

Gilmore places a selection of instruments beneath an acoustic shell onstage, heightening a sense of collectivity and suspended reality that she effectively conveys through a series of expressionist gestures. When Irina laments her existence in the first scene, her sister Olga and Mascha sisters roll on the floor at her feet; when the Baron enters drunk, the cast breaks out into revelry.

Julien Salemkour and co-conductor Joachim Tschiedel did a fine job leading the divided orchestra through Eötvös' searing score. As Irina, Elvira Hasanagic carried the role with rich lyricism and theatrical agility. Anna Lapkovskaja was a steadfast Mascha, and Eun-Kyong Lim was a credible Olga despite some mushy diction.

Benjamin Appl made for an appealing Tusenbach, and Rouwen Huther stood out for his vocal versatility and comic flair in the role of the Doctor. Frank Schlecht (Werschinin), Andreas Burckhardt (Andreij), and Daniel Eggert (Soljony) also gave solid performances.

The Infektion! Festival for New Music Theater continues through July 17. Stay tuned for reviews of Hans Werner Henze's Phaedra and Miss Donnithorne's Maggot/Infinito Nero, one-act operas by Peter Maxwell Davies and Salvatore Sciarrino.