Audacious Theatricality and Food for Thought: Der Schmied von Gent at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Schreker – Der Schmied von Gent

Smee – Leigh Melrose
Seine Frau – Kai Rüütel
Astarte – Vuvu Mpofu
Flipke – Daniel Arnaldos
Slimbroek – Michael J Scott
Herzog Alba – Leon Košavić
Der Henker Jakob Hessels – Nabil Suliman
Josef – Ivan Thirion
Maria – Wu Chia-Fen
Petrus – Justin Hopkins
Erster Adliger – Thierry Vallier
Zweiter Adliger – Simon Schmidt
Dritter Adliger – Onno Pels
Ein Knappe – Erik Dello
Tenor Solo – Stephan Adriaens

Kinderkoor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Koor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Ballet Vlaanderen / Alejo Pérez.
Stage director – Ersan Mondtag

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Ghent, Belgium.  Sunday, March 1st, 2020.

For its latest new production, here in collaboration with the Nationaltheater Mannheim, Opera Ballet Vlaanderen gave us a real rarity – Schreker’s Der Schmied von Gent.  And where better to see it that in the city where it takes place.  I caught the last performance of the run, which opened last month in Opera Ballet Vlaanderen’s other home in Antwerp.  As might be expected with a rarity, every single member of the cast was making a role debut.  The house also confided the stage direction to an operatic débutant, the noted theatre director Ersan Mondtag.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Schreker’s ninth opera makes for an entertaining evening in the theatre.  The story of Smee, the eponymous smith, his (unnamed) wife, and his sidekick Flipke, it charts Smee’s history as he sells his soul to the devil, redeems himself by helping out Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus who show up one day in Ghent, and later opens a bar at the gates of heaven, having been initially refused entry both into heaven by St Peter and also into hell.  Musically, it contains much for the house forces to get their teeth into – big choruses, loud brassy passages (the orchestra expanding into the stage-side boxes), and some enchanting, exotically-tinged string writing with solo violin for Astarte’s entry, who in the opera is a devilish temptress.   I felt the work to be somewhat episodic on first hearing, a sense that melodic ideas weren’t fully developed or explored, but it definitely merits further listening.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Mondtag gives us a staging that is visually vibrant.  The set for Acts 1 and 2 (also Mondtag in collaboration with Manuela Illera) is a revolving structure with one side a medieval city, the other a devilish face holding a baby aloft.  The costumes (Josa Marx) range between medieval chic, Victorian style, and colourful exoticism for Astarte and her followers.  In this exoticism Mondtag raises an interesting theme.  Smee’s pact with the devil ensures that he can get his smith working again, after being prevented from doing so by the Spanish during the eighty-years war.  But getting the smith working sees a group of exotically dressed people being brought in as prisoners, their riches plundered and a model of a large building carried onto the stage, a replica of the Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika / Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale in Tervuren, where much of Belgium’s colonial loot is held.  Yet after Smee lets the people go, they take with them machine guns.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Subsequently, Mondtag interrupts Act 3 to play Patrice Lumumba’s speech of June 30th, 1960, on the declaration of Congolese independence, following which a short movie showed the Congolese people turning on each other.  The exotically dressed characters then went to one room – hell – while Smee, dressed as Leopold II, tried to get into heaven.  This certainly made for a thought-provoking approach.  This idea that the ‘devil’ and ‘hell’ are products of a Euro-centric view of colonial Africa definitely gave rise to reflection.  Particularly in a country that has taken a long time to come to terms with its colonial brutality.  This is definitely a story that needs to be told, explored, and reflected upon.  And yet, I’m not entirely convinced that it works in this context.  Why do Joseph and Mary, he a bearded white man, she a woman of East Asian heritage, carry a black baby Jesus?  Is this a symbol of European plunder?  Isn’t the conclusion that hell is a product of European colonialism oversimplifying an exceptionally complex and deeply tragic history?  I left with a sense of a theatrical argument that needed to be made, but perhaps lacked the kind of clarity of theatrical argumentation that a Bieito or a Warlikowski would bring.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

The house forces threw themselves into everything asked of them – especially in the energetic dance routines.  The choruses made a massive sound, the adults displaying a striking unanimity of approach, and had clearly been exceptionally well prepared by Jan Schweiger.  Very occasionally there were some disagreements on pitch among the sopranos, but the tone was fresh and vibrant.  The extremely well-trained children’s chorus (prepared by Hendrik Derolez) was deliciously raucous and uninhibited.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

The orchestra today was on the kind of form that made them the equal of any opera house orchestra in the world.  They played as one under their chief, Alejo Pérez.  He found a big and warm string sound, yet also brought out the silvery brightness where necessary.  The brass was on sensational form, big and imposing in the textures.  Pérez led a reading that was fleet of foot, allowing the drama to race ahead, mining the comedy in the score and uniting both the work’s folksiness and its choral celestial religiosity.  Any sense of the work being episodic was surely more due to the work itself than its interpretation today.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Leigh Melrose was a physically tireless Smee.  He must have been exhausted after every show in the run as he didn’t stop moving at all.  Vocally, it’s a big role, sung over a big band, and it felt to my ears that the role is perhaps a size too big for his compact baritone, needing a little more heft at the bottom and a fuller amplitude in the middle.  That side, Melrose had clearly worked very hard on the text and always sang the music true to this own instrument, never pushing.  Kai Rüütel sang his wife in her grapefruit-toned mezzo.  She brought out a wistful sense of regret when she reflected on what might have been.  The top does tend to a little shrillness, but her verbal acuity was also most admirable.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Vuvu Mpofu sang Astarte and make a big impression.  The owner of a glamourous soprano, rich in overtones and with a potentially generous palette of vocal colours, this South African singer is definitely one to watch.  The voice opens up quite wonderfully on top with silvery radiance.  Daniel Arnaldos’s Flipke was also physically tireless, working it around the stage in a hooped skirt and bearded face.  His youthful tenor sounded delightfully fresh and easily produced.  Michael J Scott sang Slimbroek with a hefty tenor that carried well.  Ivan Thirion sang Josef in a handsome baritone, while Wu Chia-Fen sang Maria in a fresh-sounding lyric soprano.  Justin Hopkins made much as little as Petrus, singing with a bass of exceptional warmth and resonance.  The remainder of the supporting roles were well taken and reflected the excellent quality and imaginative casting of the house.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Audience members certainly owe Opera Ballet Vlaanderen a debt of gratitude for the opportunity to see this rarity, which had clearly been cast imaginatively and from strength.  The quality of the playing and singing of the house forces was definitely at the highest level.  Mondtag’s staging was a notable operatic debut, giving us a great show, full of colour and energetic movement.  It looks fantastic.  He also undoubtedly provides food for thought in a reflection on colonialism and its aftermath, on the nature of what we perceive to be good and what we perceive to be evil.  Perhaps ultimately, it’s that that which is ‘foreign’ can be perceived as hellish by outsiders.  Perhaps Mondtag is stating that there is more that unites us than divides us and that ex-colonial powers have a part to play in rectifying past wrongs.  Yet, if this is indeed what Mondtag was aiming for, I’m not convinced that the theatrical argument was as cogent as it could have been – though for an operatic debut, this is most certainly a notable achievement.  It was received with a generous ovation from a capacity audience.

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