Multiple Influences: Die Vögel from the Bayerische Staatsoper

Braunfels – Die Vögel

Prometheus – Wolfgang Koch
Wiedhopf, einstens ein Mensch, nun König der Vögel – Günter Papendell
Nachtigall – Caroline Wettergreen
Zaunschlüpfer – Emily Pogorelc
1. Drossel – Zhang Yajie
2. Drossel – Eliza Boom
Adler – Bálint Szabó
Rabe – Theodore Platt
Flamingo – George Vîrban
Hoffegut – Charles Workman
Ratefreund – Michael Nagy

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Ingo Metzmacher.
Stage director – Frank Castorf.  Video director – Timo Raddatz. 

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Saturday, November 1st, 2020.  Streamed via staatsoper.de

This new production of a genuine rarity, Braunfels’ Die Vögel, was to have been the centrepiece of the fall line-up at the Bayerische Staatsoper.  Unfortunately, the federal lockdown in Germany meant that the house was only able to give the first scheduled performance of the run to a drastically reduced audience of 50, rather than the 2100 the house usually sits.  This must have been especially galling for a house that had put so much work into making it as safe as possible for audience and cast members alike, with no cases of transmission in the two months the house had been open.  That said, this always enterprising institution is not one to take things lying down and they moved the planned livestream up from this evening, Sunday November 8th, to the evening of the premiere, capturing for posterity the work of this very promising cast.  The video is now available on demand via their website until the end of November.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

This new staging, by Frank Castorf, is something of a homecoming for Die Vögel, premiered in this very house exactly one hundred years ago.  It’s a heady work, full of languid writing, with a big choral component, some enchanting writing for coloratura soprano, the Nachtigall, and some haunting orchestral writing.  A free adaptation of Aristophanes’ The Birds, the work tells the story of Hoffegut and Ratefreund who convince Wiedhopf, the king of the birds, to construct a city in the sky, between the gods and men.  It’s undoubtedly a work worthy of rediscovery.  The musical language offers conversational late romanticism, with echoes of Strauss (inevitable to think of Frau ohne Schatten with an experienced Barak such as Wolfgang Koch in the cast) and the Wagner of Tristan.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Castorf’s staging, it must be admitted, is all rather déjà vu.  Indeed, it did wonder if they had imported the set of his Forza down from Berlin where it provoked a mini riot last year.  The set is a staircase, surrounding a trailer marked ‘Prometheus Cargo’, where a statue of a black Madonna is housed upon which Michael Nagy’s Ratefreund sprays some liquor during Act 2.  Of course, with Castorf, we don’t get a linear narrative, instead the stage and narrative are cluttered with textual references to poetry and movies.  As in the Forza, screens at the top left and right of the set illustrate close-ups of the action, notably when Charles Workman’s Hoffegut and Caroline Wettergreen’s Nachtigall get it on at the start of Act 2.  Act 2 also reveals a giant image of Alfred Hitchcock staring down over the set, while the screens show Tippi Hedren terrorized by birds.  Fortunately, we were spared the action being held up by various recitations of poetry on this occasion, but Heiner Müller made an appearance, quoted on the screen above the set.  Bálint Szabó’s Adler came on in blackface, while Nagy’s Ratefreund was costumed in a Nazi uniform in Act 2.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Perhaps Castorf wanted to make a wider point about the nature of war, of standing up against the natural order, or how the masses can be easily misled to act against their own interest.  But, as so often, it felt lost under the layers of extraneous material.  There were some interesting ideas – the sight of the chorus as the mob of birds in Act 1, hiding behind plastic sheeting as if to protect themselves from harm, felt extremely potent – especially today.  I am, however, left feeling extremely uncomfortable with the use of Nazi uniforms to illustrate characters’ motivations in an opera written by a composer of Jewish descent, whose music was banned by the Nazis, as well as the use of blackface.  It felt gratuitous and disrespectful, designed to provoke a reaction, but at the same time felt as if it added nothing to the narrative.  It also meant that Hoffegut’s rediscovery of what really mattered, the beauty in his realization of what it really meant to live, was drowned out by all that had visually gone before.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The cast gave all they had to the staging and to the music and, despite the production, gave us compelling and vivid performances.  Wettergreen sang the Nachtigall’s music in a bright, easily-produced soprano.  She floated with ease above the staff, the voice soaring effortlessly with an impeccable legato through the long melismatic lines.  Wettergreen also worked it across the stage with confidence in a costume that would surely be the envy of the cast of Ru Paul’s Drag Race.  As Hoffegut, Workman sang his music in an equally bright tenor that, as recorded here, perhaps lacked in the ultimate palette of vocal colour.  He also demonstrated an admirable legato and coped admirably with the higher reaches of the part.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Nagy brought his customary verbal acuity to Ratefreund.  This is a role that requires the ability to put the text front and centre and Nagy sang throughout with the text, rendering the subtitles superfluous.  It did sound to my ears that the role sits slightly low for his handsome baritone, but he negotiated the tessitura with assurance and convinced through his artistry and experience.  Günter Papendell sang Widhopf with his customary burnished baritone and commanding stage presence, the tone always warm and generous.  Koch brought his experienced bass-baritone to the role of Prometheus, the tone still firm and even and, through the small screen, the voice sounded of a considerable size, able to ride the band with ease.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The remaining roles were well taken, more than worthy of the quality expected at this address.  That said, the normally excellent Bayerische Staatsoper chorus seemed to be suffering from first night nerves with pitching from the sopranos, in particular, not quite à point in the quieter passages.  No doubt, this is the kind of thing that would iron out in a run.  The orchestra was on luminous form for Ingo Metzmacher.  He brought through a wealth of orchestral colour, from filigree winds to silky strings to brass blazing through Prometheus’s pronouncements.  This is a work that, for much its length, doesn’t seem to progress beyond andante and despite that, Metzmacher managed to maintain the tension throughout the nearly three-hour running time.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

In so many respects, this was a performance that satisfied.  Indeed, it was a near ideal cast, the text was always clear, and the conducting was fully alive to the constant changes of mood, yet never allowed the work to drag.  At the same time, Castorf’s staging felt déjà vu and lacking in originality, even down to using the same poem as in another of his recent stagings.  It felt, certainly to this spectator, that less than illuminating it, the work was often easily lost under the surfeit of imagery.  Still, musically, this was a very satisfying evening.

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