November 2, 2012
Komische Oper Berlin


A very musical Baroque Muppet show at the Komische Oper


Georg Friedrich Händel


Komische Oper Berlin
Musical direction: Konrad Junghänel
Staging: Stefan Herheim
Stage designer: Heike Scheele
Costumes: Gesine Völlm
Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Choir: André Kellinghaus
Light: Franck Evin

Xerxes: Stella Doufexis
Arsamenes: Karolina Gumos
Amastris: Katarina Bradic
Romilda: Brigitte Geller
Atalanta: Julia Giebel
Ariodates: Alexey Antonov
Elviro: Hagen Matzeit

Chor & Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin

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A very musical Baroque Muppet show at the Komische Oper

by Nancy Chapple / Photo: Forster

Xerxes - Komische Oper Berlin
Katarina Bradic (Amastris), Stella Doufexis (Xerxes)
Foto: Forster

It is quite an accomplishment to stage a 3¼-hour performance of a work composed 270 years earlier and ensure that the pacing is never boring, the action never confusing. Director Stefan Herheim says of the Komische Oper's staging of Handel's Xerxes: "In this production we jump among various levels, like in a Baroque Muppet show." After just five performances in London in 1738, Xerxes was retired from the repertory and only reappeared two centuries later, evidently because the work with its mix of genres was highly confusing for contemporary listeners. Perhaps that explains why the audience so enjoys this staging emphasizing the work's eclecticism: modern opera attendees are more comfortable with such a hodgepodge.

Most of the singers seemed at home with the staging and the quantity of "meaningful" movement the production demanded of them. For us there was always a lot to watch as well as to listen to. The production was highly physical: soloists climbing into and back out of the orchestra pit, the set itself frequently revolving to a new angle. Interactions between the chorus and the soloists, for instance, were shaped by typical Handel compositional elements. The chorus mocked the soloists' trills and even vibrato by physically echoing their movement. A duet with many sequences was choreographed with a series of repeated steps - and then the last and longer phrase wrapped up differently: musical structure made accessible, reminiscent of sequences from Tom and Jerry or Road Runner cartoons. There was no mocking the warm, flowing, singable Handel melodies, however. They were savored and enjoyed.

Musical director Junghänel says it's key that the five "high" singers, the females in the main roles, have vocal characters that differ as much as possible - and that is truly the case here. Their acting presence also varies. Karlina Gumos as Arsamenes was somewhat thin but beautifully musical in her lines. Katarina Bradic's Amastris was more convincing in her susceptibility to Xerxes' seductive arts than when vowing to take revenge. Brigitte Geller steadfastly insisted that she would remain faithful to her beloved no matter what - and we believed her. The scene when Atalanta sings of how she can bewitch and captivate all the men was staged in a frightening way: she's being watched by male chorus members who represent "the male eye", objectifying her. And the scene indeed spins out of control, as her wiles are understood by the men just as they want. The consequences are implied from offstage.

Xerxes - Komische Oper Berlin
Katarina Bradic (Amastris), Stella Doufexis (Xerxes)
Foto: Forster

No discussion of the evening can neglect the phenomenon Stella Doufexis: physically she was always a touch more vibrant and rascally than anyone else on the scene. Her little movements between larger events were so modern that we couldn't help but smile. One of us was reminded of Johnny Depp's scene-stealing roles in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the other of Bela B. of the German band Die Ärzte. Compared to Doufexis, the others' movements felt less spontaneous, more stylized. Of course, her voice also made use of a huge range of colors and nuances.

Some of the arias here are quite short and simple, others da capo arias where the chorus is repeated numerous times. In one, this production tosses in such a plethora of ideas that we can only laugh: Xerxes tries to get his message of love across to Romilda, while her sister Atalanta offers him five different weapons (for the five choruses) with which to kill her. Making us laugh with the varying action didn't feel illegitimate: at the same time, the voices emphasized different phrases and deployed different colors.

A note in the program indicates that the stage design itself was of major importance to the audience of the time, but that in Handel's decades in London focus was shifting to highly esteemed singers. This production equally emphasizes both elements. The costumes are pleasing, as are the constant transitions that take place in front of us: pulling off dresses, stripping to undergarments, changing clothes, for instance to "gold armor" - obviously lightweight and easy to slip into and out of. Sometimes costumes were left on the stage or embraced longingly.

One delicious touch for a Berlin audience is dressing the servant Elviro in a woman's clothing and having him speak in Berlin dialect. Berlinisch implies being bawdy, to the point, big-city impatient with anyone slow on the uptake. Intellectually, according to the director, it was intended to show the mix of comic and heroic characters typical of the opera.