The Conflict: The Bassarids at the Komische Oper, Berlin

Henze – The Bassarids

Dionysus – Sean Panikkar
Pentheus – Günter Papendell
Cadmus – Jens Larsen
Tiresias – Ivan Turšić
Captain of the Royal Guard – Tom Erik Lie
Agave – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Autonoe – Vera-Lotte Boecker
Beroe – Margarita Nekrasova

Vocalconsort Berlin, Chorsolisten der Komischen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin / Vladimir Jurowski.
Stage director – Barrie Kosky.

Komische Oper Berlin, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, November 2nd, 2019.

Any new production of The Bassarids is an event.  The Komische Oper has clearly made this a labour of love for the house, casting the work from strength, with invited guests and the house’s ensemble.  The musical and dramatic performances had clearly been invested with a considerable amount of rehearsal.

Bassarids is a mighty piece with some extremely demanding (though actually quite well written vocally) central roles and a significant choral component.  The orchestral forces are massive – overflowing out of the pit onto the stage – and also in the auditorium.  There was a protective netting under the ceiling of the house and I did wonder if it was there just in case the ceiling was dislodged by the sheer volume created by the massed forces.  Tonight, the Komische performed the 1992 revision.  The story is an incredibly timely investigation of the power of a charismatic leader to lead a populace to orgiastic pleasure, so much so that it ends in a grisly tragedy for the main female character.  There is also a vivid homoerotic element, captivatingly brought to life by Sean Panikkar’s Dionysus and Günter Papendell’s Pentheus.  The score contains some huge choral scenes as well as writing of seductive lyricism and also some rhythmically exacting passages.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The production was assigned to the house’s Intendant, Barrie Kosky.  He set the action in a single set (Katrin Lea Tag), consisting of a simple staircase with two balconies on the side.  The action also expanded into the auditorium with a lip in front of the orchestra pit where characters sang from but also where the ballet corps indulged in some dizzyingly exciting choreography.  It had many of Kosky’s trademarks (though it’s tempting to call them clichés by now).  The staircase that the chorus had to run up and down, the exacting choreography for the chorus, pointing and shaking hands in the air, as well as men in dresses (though this was actually mandated by the libretto).  It did all feel rather déjà vu.  Where I felt an issue with Kosky’s staging was that it felt very much a superficial exploration of the characters’ motivations.  There were hints of the conflict between the uptight leader and the charismatic cult head.  Yet, rather than a sense of flesh and blood individuals negotiating situations of life and death, it felt rather cold, despite some seriously impassioned individual performances.  It always felt that we were observing from without, rather than being invited or provoked to delve deep into individuals’ psychological states.  Perhaps you could say that was the point, that Kosky was attempting to recreate something of the spirit of Greek theatre.  It’s just that I longed, and not for the first time with him, for something deeper.  To be made to feel.  Instead, I was left with admiration for the dedication of the cast in their unstinting execution of their movements.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This was compounded by the fact that the house lights were left on almost entirely throughout.  This meant that, at least for this spectator, paradoxically rather than feeling part of the action, one felt distanced from it.  It also didn’t help that diction wasn’t always clear and the fact that the Komische’s seat back titles can’t be adjusted for better viewing made it impossible to check meaning at the (rather frequent points) the text was unclear.  Starting the work while audience members were still taking their seats also felt like something of a misfire, meaning that those precious few seconds of focusing into concentration were lost.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Again, I need to emphasize that this was a big achievement for the company.  I admire the work and the discipline that had undoubtedly gone into it by everyone involved.  In particular the house orchestra for Vladimir Jurowski.  This band has made some massive improvements over the years and tonight they were on phenomenal form for their former chief.  It helped that Jurowski had completely mastered the score’s multifaceted universe.  Given the disparate location of the forces, the way that he managed to create a fully-blended sound world, not to mention the remarkably tight ensemble even in the most rhythmically intricate passages, was seriously impressive.  Jurowski paced the work with great assurance, with languor where necessary but also with tautness, never losing a sense of forward impetus.  The chorus also impressed with the unanimity with which they executed their intricately complex movements.  They created a huge roar but unfortunately the sopranos were frequently under the note, robbing their music of its full impact.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Panikkar was a superb Dionysus.  The role sits well for his full and even tenor with a tart edge.  He allowed the melismatic lyricism to flow with ease, bringing out a beauty to Henze’s writing.  There were a few brief passages where the voice sounded pushed a little further than it can naturally go, with the vibrations starting to loosen.  That said, the smoking chemistry in his scenes with Papendell was irresistible.  Panikkar has clearly mastered the part and was alive to its multiple facets.  He also gamely engaged in some participatory dancing with the ballet corps.  On the evidence of tonight, I would certainly like to hear Panikkar in some Britten at some point, Vere and also Grimes, I imagine these would suit him well.  Papendell brought his fabulously handsome baritone to Pentheus’s music, singing with strength and abandon.  The voice is wonderfully warm with a molten chocolate core combined with a communicative ease.  Again, there was a slight sense of dryness entering the tone under pressure, but his dedication to all that was asked of him was inspirational.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner coped magnificently with the demanding tessitura of Agave’s music.  Her juicy mezzo seems able to deal with anything thrown at it and she was a suitably regal presence on stage.  Vera-Lotte Boecker despatched Autonoe’s writing with confidence in a silvery soprano with impressive ease on high.  Jens Larsen sang Cadmus with his customary elegance in a resonant bass while Ivan Turšić sang Tiresias in excellent English and a robust tenor.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The audience greeted the cast with a rapturous ovation following the 150-minute running time, without intermission.  My own feelings are rather mixed.  Musically it was first rate, it had been exceptionally prepared and was clearly the product of intense and detailed teamwork.  And yet, I felt that the staging kept us on the outside, that it was very much a show that remained on the surface, and this despite the vibrant and impassioned individual performances, their undoubted commitment, and the staggering execution of the dance movements of the choruses.  Perhaps, of course that was the point and this is what Kosky was aiming for.  It certainly left me with a deep sense of admiration for the impressive work of the cast.  Despite my reservations, this was a major undertaking for the house and showed the musical standards and theatrical discipline of this company at its considerable best.

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