Searching for Answers: Elias at the Theater an der Wien

Mendelssohn – Elias

Elias – Christian Gerhaher
Die Witwe – Maria Bengtsson
Engel – Kai Rüütel
Obadjah – Maximilian Schmitt
Die Königin – Ann-Beth Solvang
Seraph – Carolina Lippo
Ein Mann – Florian Köfler
Eine Frau – Anna Marshania
Ahab – Michael J Scott
Der Suchende – Antonio Gonzales
Der Bittende – Marcell Krokovay
Knabensopran – Ein Wiener Sängerknabe

Arnold Schoenberg Chor, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien / Jukka-Pekka Saraste.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria.  Monday, February 18th, 2019.

In a stimulating interview in the program book for this new production of Elias at the Theater an der Wien, director Calixto Bieito muses on the idea that organized religion can serve as a prison for its believers.  This isn’t to say that Bieito sees religion or belief in or of itself in a negative light, rather that the sincerity of belief can be easily hijacked by the unprincipled.  Of course, this isn’t a new preoccupation for him – his recent Dresden Moses und Aron is the most recent example of Bieito’s several explorations of this theme over the years.  It made for a fascinating, and indeed, compelling thread to this staging of Elias.  Both in the sheer uplifting sincerity with which the Arnold Schoenberg Chor sang ‘Siehe der Hüter Israels’, bringing to it the faithful generosity of a spiritual, as well as in a haunting final tableau where the people were literally imprisoned by their belief while being simultaneously threatened with immolation.

Christian Gerhaher (Elias) & Ensemble, Arnold Schoenberg Chor. Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

As a concert work, Elias has a narrative thread, but not in a conventionally linear way.  Rather, what we get is a combination of quite standard operatic scenes interspersed with reflections on faith.  This meant that the staging had both a tangible sense of theatre, combined with a philosophical questioning of faith and existence.  This might sound like two contradictory elements, but Bieito, in combination with his excellent cast and Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s vital conducting, transformed this staid Victorian oratorio into a compelling piece of music theatre.  As so often with Bieito, he gives us a microcosm of society, achieved by transforming every single person on stage into a clearly identifiable character.  I can see how some might be overwhelmed by the imagery, by the fact that what Bieito does is to provoke us to think, to reflect.  He doesn’t give us the answers.  Instead, he pulls us into the world of a people just like you or I, who live in a world desperate for simple answers to complex questions.  His Elias is an everyman in cargo pants, plaid shirt and boots.  But an everyman with seemingly superhuman powers – able to make it rain, although he appeared as surprised as the audience and the crowd that it did actually happen – and also liable to being attacked by the people when he failed to deliver.  Were his actions those of someone deliberately trying to control?  Or were they simply the ramblings of someone with mental illness?  Is the woman in the black suit with the wings acting out of malice, or is she a figment of his imagination?  The answers, I wager, would vary from person to person.

Christian Gerhaher (Elias), Kai Rüütel (Der Engel), Carolina Lippo (Seraph), Ann-Beth Solvang (Die Königin), Arnold Schoenberg Chor. Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

This is also a technically impressive staging.  The pouring rain is a striking sight and the simple metal sets transform themselves into both a prison and what appear to be moving tombstones.  Video (Sarah Derendinger) served to show that the divine can be found in the everyday.  The result was some memorable stage pictures – the threat of the metal sets moving over the crowd, or their jubilation as they greeted the rain, not to mention the sheer force of the mob rising up against Elias himself at the start of the second part.

Christian Gerhaher (Elias), Carolina Lippo (Seraph), Ann-Beth Solvang (Die Königin), Maria Bengtsson (Die Witwe), Ensemble, Arnold Schoenberg Chor. Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

The evening benefited from the lithe and athletic tempi set by Saraste in the pit.  Far from the statliness of the cast of thousands performances of the past, Saraste’s conducting felt as if it looked back rather than forward, through elegant, classically long-limbed lines.  The strings of the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien played with full vibrato but the cello line in ‘es ist genug’ was wonderfully cantabile.  The organ filled out the texture most magnificently.

Carolina Lippo (Seraph), Kai Rüütel (Der Engel), Christian Gerhaher (Elias), Nathan Helms (Ein Knabe), Arnold Schoenberg Chor. Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

The Arnold Schoenberg Chor had been exceptionally prepared by Erwin Ortner and Roger Díaz Cajamarca.  The tone fresh and youthful, with a unanimity of blend that gave much pleasure.  They produced a wall of sound in their opening chorus.  Despite the extremely active staging, in which they were constantly on the move, the precision of attack and ensemble never wavered.  The force with which they spat out ‘Wehe ihm, er muss sterben!’ was most impressive and throughout they also produced some radiant soft singing.

Anna Marshania (Die Wartende), Christian Gerhaher (Elias), Ann-Beth Solvang (Die Königin), Carolina Lippo (Seraph), Maria Bengtsson (Die Witwe), Michael J. Scott (Ahab), Arnold Schoenberg Chor. Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

Christian Gerhaher gave us a highly complex and intelligent performance of the title role.  He encapsulated the fiery prophet, bringing out a metal in the tone that dominated and held the stage.  His ‘Herr Gott Abrahams’ was less a prayerful entreaty than a cry of desperation.  In his ‘es ist genug’, he pulled the sound right back, draining the tone of colour, yet also declaimed ‘mein Leben nehmen’ with desperate force.  He brought his lieder singer’s attention to the text, drawing the audience in with an notable immediacy of communication.

Kai Rüütel (Der Engel), Maria Bengtsson (Die Witwe). Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

Maria Bengtsson’s strawberries and cream soprano was ideally deployed to her music.  She capped the ensembles with a radiant glow and her ‘höre Israel’ was a desperate cry for something, anything, to give meaning.  The voice is wonderfully healthy and always easy on top.  Kai Rüütel’s Engel was sung in a lyrical, sunny mezzo with an admirable legato.  Ann-Beth Solvang dispatched her music in a rich, full-bodied contralto and she raged most imperiously as the Königin.  Carolina Lippo was utterly compelling in the role of the Seraph, a kind of holy fool figure, a sister, perhaps, to a similar character in Bieito’s recent staging of the Monteverdi Vespers in Mannheim.  Her bright, almost tart, soprano was also a positive presence in the ensembles.  It sounded as if Maximilian Schmitt was a little out of sorts at first, his opening number somewhat lumpy in phrasing.  He warmed up nicely though, and later on poured out streams of liquid, lyrical tone.  He was also an extremely watchable stage presence – a visionary, desperately trying to find a role for himself.

Christian Gerhaher (Elias), Maria Bengtsson (Die Witwe), Nathan Helms (Ein Knabe), Kai Rüütel (Der Engel), Carolina Lippo (Seraph), Arnold Schoenberg Chor. Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch

This was a fascinating evening in the theatre.  The entire cast and creative team succeeded in creating an intelligent, cogent and challenging piece of music theatre, one that reflects on our own relationship with institutionalized religion and the need for answers in a world where the old certainties no longer apply.  Yet in doing so, it doesn’t so much give us as viewers the answers, rather it makes us reflect on those seemingly blinded and misled in their search for a truth.  As a semi-abstract reimagining of a concert piece, does it work as an opera?  In this case, I believe that it does.  It’s an audacious piece of theatre, one that works precisely due to the tireless advocacy of all involved, due the conducting that ripped away the stately grandeur so often imposed on the work, all combined with Bieito’s visionary theatricality.  Undoubtedly a challenging and compelling evening in the theatre.

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