A Journey of Life: Vespro della Beata Vergine at the Nationaltheater Mannheim

Monteverdi – Vespro della Beata Vergine

Soprano – Amelia Scicolone, Nikola Hillebrand
Mezzo – Anna Hybiner
Tenor – Kristofer Lundin, Joshua Whitener, Raphael Wittmer
Bass – Dominic Barberi, Patrick Zielke

Chor des Nationaltheaters Mannheim, il Gusto Barocco / Jörg Halubek.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Nationaltheater, Mannheim, Germany.  Saturday, December 15th, 2018.

Perhaps more than any other director in my experience, giving women the opportunity to tell their stories has long been a preoccupation for Calixto Bieito.  His Entführung told the story of those whose stories aren’t often told, his Otello portrayed the visceral horror of domestic violence, and his Tosca was the very first that I have seen that truly succeeded in making it her story.  Similarly, Bieito has a track record in staging concert/liturgical works most successfully.  There was a shattering War Requiem in Oslo, as well as more recently, a deeply-felt vision of the hereafter in a Hamburg Verdi Requiem.  In an interesting interview in the program book, Bieito refers to his Iberian upbringing, surrounded by strong women as well as the influence of the Catholic liturgy, to explain his interest in wanting to stage these Monteverdi Vespers.

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Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

In common with the recent Zürich Poppea and Dresden Moses und Arond, it struck me once again how Bieito’s staging amplifies the music, making it feel such an integral part of it.  The opening chorus, blasting out in a blaze of sound, was physically overwhelming, given added resonance by the set as well as the position of the chorus on stage.  Similarly, he staged the ‘nisi dominus’ with both choirs on opposite sides of the stage, throwing the sound between each other and enveloping the audience within it.  The orchestra was located in the pit, with a runway surrounding them, on which some of the action took place.  This, I’m afraid, was problematic.  The Nationaltheater Parkett has a very steep rake, which meant that much of the action at the front of the stage was lost to audience members, even half-way back in the room.  Had the stage area been moved back to where the stage usually is, it would have worked better.  Sadly, here it wasn’t optimal and resulted in a lot of leaning forward by audience members, blocking views for those behind, as well as a couple standing up for a second to see what was going on.

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Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

Again, in the program book interview, Bieito mentions how staging liturgical works such as this, offers a creative openness that isn’t available when staging more formal narratives.  And that is precisely what we don’t get here.  Rather than a linear narrative, instead we saw an illustration of the music.  In many respects, there’s far too much detail to take in, in a single viewing.  In others, it’s absolutely overwhelming.  What Bieito and his excellent cast give us, is a meditation on the power of ritual, but also of the power of women.  As the Vespers evolve, we repeatedly hear the text of the ‘gloria’ – ‘gloria patri et filio, et spiritui sancto’.  All three elements are masculine (at least linguistically).  Yet, what we saw the crowd worshipping visually, was a very feminine figure – a young girl in a white dress.   At times, they turn on her, at others they look up at her hanging from the wall.  Her messengers, however, are men – two priestly figures, one dressed rather grandly, the other in a more mundane suit.  There’s a dichotomy here that I found absolutely fascinating – as if to say that one can’t exist without the other, yet the real power lies with the women, and not necessarily with those who verbalize it.  There are moments where Bieito seems to want to remind us that men can also take things away – the Priest taunts a woman with a cloth that she had previously worn under her dress as if pregnant.  The Priest also trains a group of young girls to move around in formation, perhaps training them in the roles that society thinks they should have.  As so often, Bieito doesn’t give us all the answers.  Instead, he allows us to each bring our own experiences and understanding to what we saw on stage.

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Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

Musically, it was very satisfying.  The house engaged the baroque orchestra, il Gusto Barocco, who played with wonderful élan.  Their tuning throughout was impeccable – the brass especially fluent and accurate in the ‘ave maris stella’.  Jörg Halubek led a reading that was nicely swift, always based in a firm rhythmic foundation.  Inevitably on a first night, there were a few isolated incidents of stage-pit coordination not being quite unanimous – though that must have been exacerbated with many of the cast singing with the conductor behind them.  The house chorus sang with great enthusiasm and full-throated tone.  For a non-specialist chorus, they did a very creditable job.  The sound was firm – no war of vibratos, fortunately – and ensemble was solid.

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Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

The solo singing gave much pleasure.  The two sopranos, Amelia Scicolone and Nikola Hillebrand, sang a delicious ‘pulchra es’, both very similar in vocal colour with bright, liquid, crystal tone, intertwining quite splendidly together.  The two basses also gave much pleasure.  Patrick Zielke sang with quite evangelical fervour in a big, beefy and resonant bass, while Dominic Barberi sang with elegant, velvety tone.  Their duets filled the room with a wave of warm, healthy sound.  The tenors also made an impression.  Joshua Whitener sang an impassioned ‘nigra sum’ – perhaps too impassioned as the pitch started to part company with the pit.  Costumed as a genderqueer figure, his was another illustration of a road to womanhood.  Kristofer Lundin sang a wonderfully delicate ‘audi cœlum’, spinning long lines with improvisatory freedom, while Raphael Wittmer’s peppery tenor brought character to the ensembles.  Anna Hybiner’s generous contralto also added a ruby red warmth to the vocal texture.

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Photo: © Hans Jörg Michel

This was a remarkable evening in the theatre.  In highlighting the girls, pregnant women, young women in the first flush of youth, as well as a person becoming a woman, Bieito was in fact illustrating the journey of these girls and women as they travelled through life.  And yet, it also struck me, as so often with him, as a call to arms.  Of the need to put equality between genders front and centre in all that we do.  I really don’t want to add spoilers, so if you’re planning on seeing it stop reading here.  In the very final ‘gloria’ in the ‘magnificat’, Halubek held back, allowing the instrumental palette to be set.  As Lundin launched into the ‘gloria’, he was accompanied by a halo of female voices.  There was something magical at that moment, something that took us to the core of what this staging was about.  That somehow, we are in it together, that when women thrive – in all the multitude of varieties they come in – we all thrive.  Musically, it was a very good evening.  Theatrically, it was something very special indeed.

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