Was it all a dream? Die tote Stadt at the Komische Oper, Berlin

Korngold – Die tote Stadt

Paul – Aleš Briscein
Marie/Marietta – Sara Jakubiak
Frank/Pierrot – G
ünter Papendell
Brigitta – Maria Fiselier
Juliette – Georgina Melville
Lucienne – Marta Mika
Victorin – Adrian Strooper
Graf Albert – Ivan Tur

Kinderchor der Komischen Oper Berlin, Chorsolisten der Komischen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin / Ainārs Rubiķis.
Stage director – Robert Carsen.

Komische Oper Berlin, Berlin, Germany.  Sunday, September 30th, 2018.

Tonight’s Die tote Stadt marked the first new production of the Komische Oper’s 2018 – 19 season.  This is a house that’s flourishing, with its innovative programming and excellent ensemble.  The house was completely sold out and the performance was also live streamed on the Opera Platform.  Tonight also marked the first new production for Ainārs Rubiķis in his new role as the house’s Music Director.  He’s taking on an orchestra in fabulous shape and their playing was undoubtedly the high point of this tote Stadt – more on them anon.

Photo: © Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

The staging was confided to Robert Carsen.  The sets (Michael Levine) reflected the fin de siècle atmosphere of the score’s late romantic sound world.  Carsen played the story relatively straight.  At its best, his staging provided a visually striking framework for the action.  It was interesting how the late Act 2 scene between Paul and Marietta was performed in front of a stage audience who applauded them loudly as they kissed.  In Act 3, the procession filled the stage in a hallucinogenic display of religious piety, the gaudily-lit Madonnas brightening up the gloom.  The presence of the ballet in Act 2 also added visual interest.   Another strong visual image was how the walls of the set opened up as Paul allowed Marietta into his life, later closing in as he let her go.

The downside, in common with Carsen’s Rosenkavalier seen at the London Royal Opera last year, was a coldness in the relations between the characters.  They seemed to barely engage with each other (other than the aforementioned kiss).  This is a story of a man’s grief and obsession and despite Aleš Briscein’s fearless vocalism and Sara Jakubiak’s genuine charisma, it felt that the interactions between each other were cold and unfeeling.  The result, was that it felt difficult to care about either character.  Similarly, having Günter Papendell’s Frank remove his shirt in his argument with Paul (although not disagreeable to witness) seemed gratuitous, unnecessary and certainly random.  In the final tableau, Carsen’s decision to portray Frank and Brigitta as doctors in white coats, ready to take Paul away, felt like an afterthought – particularly as it hadn’t been developed through the evening – and reinforced that impression of having invested in a story that didn’t find closure.

Photo: © Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

Musically, things were more satisfying, particularly as far as the orchestra was concerned.  The Komische band sounded absolutely glorious tonight.  The brass, especially, ringing out into the room, the string sound warm and generous.  Rubiķis encouraged his forces to take wing and there were a few moments where the singers were overwhelmed – though given the thickness of the orchestration, that’s somewhat inevitable.  Tempi felt sensible, although transitions weren’t always handled completely organically, there were a few awkward gear changes in places.  As is common on a first night, there were a few momentary departures between stage and pit – unfortunate that one had to happen in that celebrated number ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’ – but these will certainly iron out over the course of the run.  The children’s chorus was excellent in their brief interjections and the adult sopranos added a lovely halo of sound to Pierrot’s song.

That wonderful number was sung by Papendell with deeply moving insight into its nostalgic melancholy.  His phrasing was slightly short and choppy, but he imbued the song with so much honesty, complemented by his warm and resonant baritone, that it was impossible not to be moved.  Elsewhere he was a positive presence on stage as was Maria Fiselier’s Brigitta.  She coped most admirably with the role’s extreme tessitura, soaring easily in the higher reaches of the part.  The ensemble roles were well taken.

Photo: © Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

As the central pair, Briscein and Jakubiak both gave completely of themselves to the public.  Both, unfortunately seemed to have some tuning issues, undoubtedly due to first night nerves as these settled down during the course of the evening.  Briscein gave a fearless rendition of this ungrateful part.  His bright, forward and well-placed tenor manages to carry well into the auditorium, although at times he had a tendency to put pressure on the tone which resulted in the sinking pitch, even though the voice actually carried nicely.  His contained stage presence actually was a good match for Carsen’s vision, even if ultimately, that sense of someone losing control didn’t quite come fully across.  Briscein most certainly made it to the end, always sang the notes and gave us excellent clarity of diction.  The parts of Marietta and Marie could have been written for Jakubiak’s stage presence – she holds the stage quite splendidly.  The voice has a nicely rounded, pearly middle although the top tends to chalkiness and didn’t always sit on the core of the note.  She found a soaring beauty for her ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’, the voice blooming quite wonderfully on top.  This was a very confident first night performance, although I left with a feeling that Jakubiak has the potential for something even finer in the role as the run will progress.

Photo: © Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

This was something of a mixed occasion.  The singing was always honourable and the orchestral playing was superb.  The main issue for me was Carsen’s staging and it felt especially frustrating, as it had so many of the same aspects that I found problematic in another recent staging of his.  It was undoubtedly technically proficient, fluently produced and looked good.  At the same time, there was too much standing and delivering to the front, and I really lacked the sense of characters engaging with each other in this desperate story of grief and obsession.  Similarly, it felt that both Briscien and Jakubiak, who gave so much of themselves, will have even more to give in subsequent performances.  That said, to hear this magnificent score played so well was certainly worth the journey.

If you value the writing on this site, you can help expand its coverage by joining the Patreon community and helping to support independent writing on opera.  Alternatively, you can support operatraveller.com with a one-off gesture via paypal.

One comment

  1. I do love a review that talks about what a great musical evening it was, except that the conductor swamped the singers, couldn’t keep the pit and stage together in the big number, and the tempo changes were awkward ….. but it will “work out during the run”! How on earth can one reasonably say this? Covering singers is simply not “inevitable”. What are the protracted rehearsal periods for?? I’m sorry, but the accurate reportage of musical reality here does not add up to the conclusions that the viewer backs into. This is the kind of reviewing that makes lousy inept performances possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.