Shakespearean Tragedy and Theatrical Virtuosity: Lear at the Opéra national de Paris

Reimann – Lear

König Lear – Bo Skovhus
König von Frankreich – Gidon Saks
Herzog von Albany – Derek Welton
Herzog von Cornwall – Michael Colvin
Graf von Kent – Kor-Jan Dusseljee
Graf von Gloster – Lauri Vasar
Edgar – Andrew Watts
Edmund – Andreas Conrad
Goneril – Evelyn Herlitzius
Regan – Erika Sunnegårdh
Cordelia – Annette Dasch
Narr – Ernst Alisch
Bedienter – Luca Sannai
Ritter – Lucas Prisor

Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Fabio Luisi.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Opéra de Paris – Garnier, Paris, France.  Saturday, November 30th, 2019.

Tonight, the Opéra de Paris revived their 2016 production of Aribert Reimann’s Lear.  I had hoped to see it during the first run but, as is customary with this house, the performances were affected by strike action.  Lear is a remarkable work, displaying a staggering understanding of sonority, the music absolutely gripping.  When combined with a staging by a director as insightful as Calixto Bieito, this makes for a memorable evening in the theatre.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

Reimann’s score adapts the bones of Shakespeare’s drama, in a German translation by Claus H Henneberg, and transforms it into an evening of concentrated drama.  There is an extensive cast, but the work also brings to the fore, the three sisters, Lear himself, and Edgar.  A spoken role for the Fool, provides a foil to the characters, commenting on the action.  The music seems to sit on the edge of tonality, the enormous orchestra (with percussion stretching out of the pit into the stage-side boxes) used with great assurance.  The score has violence, with driving percussion and raucous trumpets, yet there’s also tenderness – notably in a tender Liebestod for Cordelia where, for the first time in the evening, Reimann spins out a Wagnerian warmth in the strings that brings us back to conventional tonality.  Another striking moment happened as Lear found himself on the heath, the forces reduced to a solitary alto flute lyrically meditating over a haze of microtonal strings, from where out of nowhere, Edgar’s countertenor melismatically vocalizes from the edge of the stage.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

The evening gained additional impact through Bieito’s staging.  He, along with set designer Rebecca Ringst and lighting designer Franck Evin, creates a virtuosic piece of theatre that amplifies Reimann’s score to create a true gesamtkunstwerk.  As the evening begins, the audience is confronted by a wooden set, the wall at the back of the set enclosing the characters, as Lear decides how to split his realm.  Goneril and Regan are introduced as extremely power-hungry, going so far as to crawl along the floor like dogs to get scraps of what they can get from Lear.  In the Act 1 interlude, Bieito magnifies the music, using light from behind the set, penetrating the wooden slats, to amplify the bustling score, using the chorus and principals to create constantly-changing light patterns.  As Lear’s world falls apart, so does the set, becoming a forest in which he wanders lost, searching for what could have gone wrong.  Finally, the carnage of the final act is manifested through the set completely disintegrating, the world literally falling apart around these characters who have truly lost everything and have no other choice than to face death.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

As always, Bieito creates such fully-rounded and complex characters, their motivations always fully apparent – and scarily believable.  He takes his singing-actors to the limits, Bo Skovhus’s Lear, stripped of all kingly dignity – even of his clothes, in particular giving us a performance of searing dramatic power.  The Opéra assembled a staggeringly good cast and with singing-actors of the calibre of Evelyn Herlitzius as Goneril or Derek Welton as Albany, it’s inevitable that we would get performances of visceral power.  But what stays with me is how these all felt part of an integrated whole, as if deeply connected to both the music and the staging.  Reimann’s music is challenging for the singers, taking them to the extremities of their registers but, given the huge orchestra, he never forces them to sing over the tumult, always allowing the voices through.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

Skovhus brought so much insight to Lear. His performance had genuine impact thanks to his still handsome baritone, giving this complex music a lyrical beauty and tenderness, particularly as he said goodbye to Cordelia.  Physically, he was exceptionally brave, but it was the lyricism that he found in the score that made his performance so memorable, finding a beauty and warmth that made the disintegration of his character so memorable.  Of the three sisters, Herlitizus dispatched her role with her customary electric stage presence and verbal acuity, her dramatic soprano pouring out massive streams of energetic high notes, filling the house, and crossing the registers with the tone always absolutely integrated.  As Goneril, Erika Sunnegårdh dispatched her music with assurance and threw herself physically into the violence of the setting.  Her brassy soprano seems to have acquired a slightly softer edge, somewhat frayed around the edges these days, but she sang with confidence and no little energy.  Annette Dasch had a challenging assignment as Cordelia.  The music sits exceptionally high for her lyric soprano.  It seems churlish to suggest that there was a touch of tightness at the top, but she did sing with tenderness and heartfelt passion.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

Andrew Watts was an utterly compelling Edgar.  The role requires him to exploit both a compact baritone and a fruity, ruby-red countertenor.  There was a lyricism to his singing, again, bringing out that beauty of the haunting sounds of the heath, yet also digging into the pain of someone who had lost what he had no memory of having.  The voice filled the theatre with ease.  Welton’s Albany was sung in a handsome, resonant bass-baritone, bringing out so much from the text and a tower of strength amid the carnage.  The role of Edmund also lies exceptionally high, particularly in his ‘bastard’ soliloquy, but Andras Conrad delivered it with energy and penetrating tone, the voice showing no signs of strain despite the exceptionally high tessitura.  Ernst Alisch’s Fool delivered his sprechgesang with poignance, savouring the text.  The cast is too vast to discuss in further detail, but suffice it to say, they most certainly maintained the promise expected.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

The Opéra forces were on confident form for Fabio Luisi who led a reading alive to the constantly changing soundworld.  There are so many influences there – the Schoenberg of Gurrelieder when the Fool speaks, Stravinsky of Le Sacre, and finally Tristan in Cordelia’s farewell.  These influences anchor the work in a sense of universality that give us a way into Reimann’s music.  Luisi and his forces brought these out with seemingly unlimited tonal palette.  The gentlemen of the house chorus sang with discipline and blend.  The orchestra, percussion in particular, fully living up to the standards expected at this address.  They had clearly spent a lot of time preparing for this revival – and it showed.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

This was truly an all-encompassing evening of music theatre.  One in which we were taken deep into the heart and mind of people who had lost everything.  That we were able to do so with an exceptional cast is testament to the visionary casting available to the house.  Above all, this was an introduction to a compelling work, in a staging that magnified and enriched the music with insight and theatrical virtuosity.  I very much hope that the Opéra has filmed these performances for commercial release – with musical forces this strong, it needs to be seen.

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