Purcell – Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Aušrinė Stundytė
Aeneas – Günter Papendell
Belinda – Victoria Randem
Venus – Rinat Shaham
Sorceress – Key’mon Murrah
First Witch – Elmira Karakhanova
Schoenberg – Erwartung
Eine Frau – Aušrinė Stundytė
Zusatzchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Andrew Manze.
Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany. Sunday, January 29th, 2023.
Two short, but very different operas, the focus of this latest premiere at the Bayerische Staatsoper tonight. Munich has seen some of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s best stagings over the years – his Brokeback Mountain-inspired Yevgeny Onegin, his deeply-moving Frau ohne Schatten, or his Salome that made us reflect on the horror of isolation and what lies beyond. Expectations were certainly high tonight, particularly with a cast consisting of some of the most insightful singing-actors of today.
Warlikowski uses both works to take us deep into the psyche of a woman seeking refuge. Aušrinė Stundytė incarnates a woman living with unspeakable trauma, who finds herself in a place where reality and fantasy meld into one. She may well be in a three-way relationship with Belinda and Aeneas – perhaps they were the people who took her in, perhaps they were also others looking for sanctuary. The presence of a mysterious other woman, here entitled Venus, who sings the music of both the Second Woman and Second Witch, may also be part of her imagination, a deus ex machina responsible for sending Aeneas away. The sets, by Warlikowski’s long term collaborator Małgorzata Szczęśniak, are stunning in their detail. Much of the action takes place in a house that opens up in two and is moved around the stage. The Nationaltheater is a theatre that does have variable sightlines and those on the left-hand side of the auditorium will see more. That said, the team clearly had this in mind as they use video to amplify what happens within the on-stage house by displaying the action on a screen above it, thereby allowing more of the audience to see the intricacies of what goes on. From my seat in the centre of the Parkett, it worked extremely well.
There are so many memorable stage pictures here – Szczęśniak’s set has some isolated trees that, thanks to Felice Ross’ lighting, take on a snowy glow as the witches appear. Combined with the intricacies of the personenregie, and the outstanding acting ability of the cast, not to mention the sheer clarity of the diction throughout, this became an overwhelming evening of music theatre. There’s something very dark in Warlikowski’s dénouement. Without wanting to give away spoilers, it felt that he was really forcing us to reflect on how we support those suffering from mental illness and those seeking refuge. There’s a juxtaposition there between the suburban, heterosexual, quotidian, and the world of a troubled queer woman searching for intimacy though not sure where to find it. He takes us deep into her soul, the constant questioning of the real and imagined, exemplified by a male dancer during Erwartung transforming into becoming a waiter laying a table, or how Belinda starts twerking in one of the ballets in Dido – some impressive moves from Victoria Randem. There’s humour here also. Stundytė’s Dido holds up a book saying ‘there are zombies’ when the witches appear, but the use of humour also heightens the tragedy when it emerges.
Of course, both works have very different orchestrations and in order to deal with the issue of having to reseat quite a large band mid-show and present the evening without intermission, Warlikowski comes up with quite an ingenious solution. He stages an interlude, consisting of some electronic music written by Paweł Mykietyn, combined with a video of the traversal of a long, graffiti-lined tunnel, with dance performances by members of the house’s ballet corps. The music was the kind of ambient chill out one might hear at a beach bar on Eivissa, with Rinat Shaham’s Venus vocalizing over the textures, but it was certainly engaging and actually felt of a piece with the evening as a whole. It similarly, reflected Warlikowski’s own long-term interest in street dance, a frequent feature of his shows. Perhaps the volume was slightly loud, requiring the ears to readjust to the Schoenberg, but it really did work.
Musically, this was an evening that more than lived up to its promise. There are few conductors who could be equally persuasive in Purcell and in Schoenberg, but Andrew Manze is one of them. His Purcell sounded like a period band – the strings playing without vibrato, digging deep to find meaning. Yes, perhaps the dances could have used a little more swing, they felt a bit heavy of foot, but his tempi overall were very sensible. He led the Schoenberg with the utmost clarity, that desperate chopping motif sounded absolutely terrifying, giving the band free rein yet always letting Stundytė through. As in last night’s Masnadieri, the Staatsorchester was on thrilling form. The chorus was formed from the house’s volunteer Zusatzchor. They sang with enthusiasm and good blend, although the sopranos did have a tendency to sit slightly under the note. They had clearly been thoroughly prepared by Stellario Fagione.
There are few singers who have essayed both Dido and Eine Frau, and certainly not in the same evening. With her experience in the more challenging music in the repertoire, one might have expected Stundytė to feel more at home in the Schoenberg. And yet, she made for a captivating Dido. Yes, the music doesn’t sit in the best place for the voice. Perhaps it was first night nerves, but she initially sounded rather unfocused in tone. Yet she used this to dramatic effect, making every word, every note really mean something – her opening ‘Ah’s were brittle, neurotic and traumatized. By the time she got to the lament, Stundytė sang it with heart-breaking evenness of tone, fully exploiting the text, those repeated ‘remember me’s filled with desperate pain – it was utterly devastating. In the Schoenberg, she negotiated the angular writing with aplomb, the text forward and always clear. She was unstinting in her commitment, the desperation palpable, and there could only be one response to ‘ich suchte’. This was a towering performance from a truly remarkable and intelligent artist.
If Stundytė was the core of this staging, the evening as a whole was very much the work of an ensemble cast. Randem sang her music beguilingly, in a crystalline soprano of great pulchritude. Günter Papendell sang Aeneas and the Sailor in a beefy, handsome baritone of exquisite warmth of tone. Shaham sang her roles with determination and a warm, chestnut-toned mezzo. Elmira Karakhanova brought an agreeably focused and trumpet-toned soprano to her music. Key’mon Murrah was a revelation in his roles. His is a countertenor of fabulous evenness from top to bottom, a voice that soared with impressive ease on high and no intrusive break at the bottom. He also has an agreeable fizz of a fast vibrato to the tone – without doubt a name to watch.
This was one of those evenings that reminded us of why this artform matters. It brought together music, text, and physicality to give us an overwhelming experience. Yet it also felt visionary. Visionary in how these two works were brought together, in how they were connected, in the striking stage pictures that were seriously impressive. It was exhilarating. More than that, Warlikowski gave voice to those whose stories are often ignored or disparaged. Which made it even all the more special that, for once, the audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Having seen many of his stagings where the narrow-minded boors boo, to hear an audience give the cast and creative team the massive ovation they did, was just wonderful to hear. If you are anywhere near Munich, run for a ticket.