Dutch National Opera Forward Festival 2023 Review: Ändere die Welt!

Beriso & Van Berckel Offer An Optimistic Take On How To Change The World

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Bart Grietens)

Amsterdam’s Opera Forward Festival is dedicated to the exploration of new operas and music theatre alongside other experimental experiences, performances and talks centered on a specific theme.

In this, the festival’s seventh edition, it considered questions of revolution and freedom and was headlined by three new operas, two of which, “Animal Farm” by Alexander Raskatov and “Perle Noire” by Tyshawn Sorey, were premiered at the Dutch National Opera Theatre with top-quality casts and production teams. The third opera was “Ändere die Welt!” a pasticcio by music director Pedro Beriso and stage director Mart van Berckel, and was performed by students and recent graduates of the Dutch National Opera Studio in the smaller Meervaart theatre on a lower budget.

Although it may have lacked the plush staging and star names to go with it, it was no less innovative, and successfully won over the audience with its imaginative, challenging and clear-sighted consideration of the festival’s themes.

A Revolution For The Modern World

Van Berckel’s starting point was the day after an attempted revolution. The streets are empty, littered only by the resulting debris and deserted barricades. The image is an old one, reminiscent more of the 19th century than of the present day. Are such revolutions likely to succeed in what is now a far more complex and complicated world in which power is wielded in far different ways? Maybe they are, maybe they are not, but Van Berckel believes that change can come about in a different way.

In “Ändere die Welt!” he attempts to show how this is possible through the relationships formed by four individuals who have been involved in a revolution in some capacity. Each has their own story to tell. There are two men: an old revolutionary who has seen it all before and a young, disillusioned revolutionary; and two women: one who has suffered the loss of a loved one, and the other with a child for whom she wants a better future. As the opera progresses, the unnamed characters develop close bonds in which the child, who represents the future, acts as a catalyst.

Van Berckel’s change comes from the bottom, on an individual level, precipitated by the development of compassion for those with whom they meet. It is this coming together that will sustain real change. Certainly, it is an optimistic, perhaps even a naïve, viewpoint, but it provided for an engaging and well-constructed tale, and who knows, the optimism may be well-founded.

An Eclectic Mix Of Styles

Beriso devised the pasticcio so that the chosen music was based around composers and librettists whose work is associated in some form with the themes of change and revolution. The title of the work “Ändere die Welt!” (Change the World!) is a song taken from the 1930 cantata “Die Maßnahme” by the two committed socialist revolutionaries Hanns Eisler and Bertholt Brecht. In fact, Eisler and Brecht are involved, either together or individually, in eight of the 19 selected pieces. Obviously, pieces by Kurt Weill also make an appearance, but so do Wagner’s lied “Träume” and two pieces by Beethoven, both of whom have revolutionary associations. “Mieux Vaut Mourir,” a duet from Auber’s opera “La Muette de Portici,” with close associations to the Belgian uprising, was also selected. The remaining pieces include works by Schumann, Schoeck, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

The variety of styles from across the 19th and  20th centuries, taking in Romantic lieder, cabaret and jazz songs, as well as more modern pieces, suggests a disparate collection. Yet Beriso’s well-crafted re-orchestrations and transpositions for different voices and combinations of voices ensured that rather than jar, they sat together comfortably. In fact, the musical fabric of the work was beautifully varied, with the pieces sometimes complementing, although often contrasting, each other to good effect. It was also a score that was sensitively crafted to support the drama.

The musical pieces were occasionally connected by electronic sounds created by Wouter Snoei, but more often by a spoken text, written and presented by the spoken word-artist Amara van der Elst. While they certainly added to the drama in their own right, they also provided the necessary space between the musical numbers so that their different styles did not create awkward or ugly clashes.

Van der Elst’s text was delivered as a series of questions about our behavior, the relationships between things, and the nature of, and desire for change. She has a strong stage presence, and her delivery was animated, passionate and confident. Initially, her provocative questioning made a strong impact. However, the decision to present everything as a question eventually became a little tiresome, and her ideas often descended into well-worn platitudes, reminiscent of Greta Thunberg. Her decision on one occasion to hector the audience, as if it were morally or intellectually inferior, and to assume that it had never considered the questions she was asking, was particularly condescending. Despite these criticisms, her overall impact was positive.

A Simple, Effective Staging

Van Berckel’s direction, aided by Vera Selhorst’s stage and lighting designs and Rosa Schützendorf’s costumes, was simple yet effective. The opening moments, in which the cast and orchestra burst through a door and onto the stage, which was littered with chairs that had been used as barricades, were particularly well-conceived. They then started to form themselves into a small community of mutual support, tidying and organising the area, and building relationships. The orchestra positioned itself to the rear of the stage, on the right-hand side. Costumes were modern-day, standard attire that neatly reflected the personalities of the characters.

The integration of the orchestral ensemble into the onstage community was also an interesting and well-worked idea: often they would leave the confines of their performance area, either individually or in groups, and join with the cast, for example, around the fire to keep warm or to perform next to the singers, thereby reinforcing the bonds that bind the budding community.

A Well-Balanced Cast Deliver Convincing Performances

All the singers performed to a pleasing standard, both individually and in the ensemble pieces. Quartets and duets were wonderfully balanced; the singers appeared determined to be part of the ensemble rather than individuals wishing to standout. Each ensemble number was effectively delivered, with the voices complementing each other splendidly.

Bass-baritone Sam Carl, cast as the old revolutionary, made a fine entrance with his rendition of Eisler and Brecht’s piece “In die Städte kam ich zu der Zeit der Unordnung” from 1939. His voice has an engaging timbre and a colorful palette, which he used successfully to bring depth and insight to his reading of the pieces. His singing is clear, with an almost deliberate articulation, which adds to the quality of his expression. His developing relationship with the child was sensitively and convincingly portrayed.

Soprano Elenora Hu convincingly portrayed her character’s sense of loss as she sat quietly apart with a melancholic air, which gave her developing relationships with the others a greater degree of poignancy. She sang with emotional integrity, although she occasionally lacked sufficient projection. Her rendition of Wagner’s lied Träume from his Wesendoncklieder showed off her sensitivity and nicely balanced voice, although her approach was maybe a touch on the conservative side.

Baritone Michael Wilmering produced an energetic interpretation as the young revolutionary. He has a resonant, versatile voice with an attractive timbre, which his rendition of Weill’s “Cäsars Tod” from his 1933 Schauspieloper “Der Silbersee” showed off to good effect. His acting was equally convincing.

It was, however, soprano Inna Demenkova who produced the standout performance. She possesses a strong stage presence with a voice that grabs the attention. Her portrait of the woman who is determined to create a better world for her son was convincing on every level. She was busily energetic in his interests, caring and emotionally engaged, oozing warmth and compassion to all the people around her. Her singing was vibrant, expressively detailed and lyrically appealing, with a beautiful clarity in her upper register.

The singers were wonderfully accompanied by the Ludwig Orkest under Beriso’s direction. The balance was always perfectly placed so that the weighting between the ensemble and the singers, and within the ensemble itself, allowed the textural qualities of the pieces to be clearly heard. Rhythmic tensions and dynamic contrasts were managed sensitively to support the dramatic needs of the opera. And Beriso’s orchestration ensured that there were plenty of solo opportunities for the players, who all played superbly. Moreover, it was a beautiful performance, one that uncovered the emotional depths or frisson that lay at the heart of so many of the pieces.

Admittedly, I was not wholly convinced by the work’s underlying message. With power increasingly becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and the means of holding on to that power increasing at a rapid rate, the idea of either an old-fashioned revolution or change arising from compassion seems very remote indeed. Nevertheless, this was an interesting and well-crafted work with much to admire. It is imaginatively presented and musically engaging. It is now being performed across the country by the Nederlandse Reisopera and Opera Zuid, and is well worth the price of a ticket.


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