Bayerische Staatsoper 2021 Review: Eight Songs for a Mad King

Holger Falk & the Orchestra Deliver A Fantastic Reading of Davis’ Masterpiece

By Polina Lyapustina

“I’m not ill, I’m nervous.”
— George III in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ monodrama

Coming to Bavarian State Opera was always a special event. I consider this theater to be the only one that never fell short of my expectations. And it’s not a surprise that I chose to review a performance from there during these busy weeks when the world has gone crazy, and nothing promises improvement.

I came there to get inspired, to see and hear something truly beautiful, regardless of the fact that the central theme of the performance was total and terminal madness. 

Something New

But as soon as the stream started, I felt something new and alien. After almost a year in a lockdown, watching numerous performances online, and being lucky enough to attend some live events, for the first time in my life, I felt how my anxiety extended on my perception of what was happening on stage.

There were people. People were sitting in rows right on the stage, not far from each other, with no masks. And for a moment, it took all my attention. How come? Were they all tested? Crazy. I stopped the torrent of alarms in my head.

When in 1969, Davies premiered his work, it shocked both the audience and critics. Part public history, part private drama, this piece was telling the story no one could associate themselves with. The cages of the stage at the time of the original performance locked people inside, but today — the stage is an open space. The feeling of being locked is too familiar and unnecessary in physical reinforcement. The music, voice, and acting will agonize on this stage and beat against its nonexistent walls for the next 30 min.

Just 30 minutes, yes, but it is a period for the emotion of high intensity.

It all started with a scream, torn like a bandage covering the king’s mouth. This sound is inhuman — and in reality, it’s a violin, but just for now. It’s a hint, teasing us with the expectations of the sound baritone Holger Falk will produce very soon. Though Davies’ monodrama is rarely performed in strict accordance with the score, this time Halt felt prepared to reach every peak. Back in 1969, this piece depicted a new level of emotionalism that has become so normal today. And so we hear.

The role of Mad King forces the baritone to sing over more than four octaves, and it’s not only singing. Vocal gymnastics, as critics often call it, requires extended techniques for constant muttering, shrieks, and screeches that are constantly overlapped by gentle and robust singing; it’s almost like an attack of rabies subsiding and manifesting a human essence in the King.

Though there are people around, the total loneliness of the King is the main topic. His words and groans resonate with the music that doesn’t respond and moments of repressive silence. The entirety of humankind seems to be either hostile or afraid of him. Or lifeless like those rows of mannequins that scared me at the beginning. Incidentally, there were real actors during the summer performances, but this forced replacement only improved the staging, in my opinion. 

From the depths of his madness, he desperately wants to be heard by someone. By anyone. “I mean no harm. Madam, let us talk,” but Katharina Kutnewsky and her flute flutter away from King. And he sings up high, gently talks to the mirages.

The Real Gem

The real gem of Andreas Weirich’s “Eight songs” is Falk’s acting. Yes, his vocal abilities are amazing indeed, but to combine this truly mad and often hysterical sound with the man’s body to build such a natural and astonishingly convincing portrait is a challenge that the most skillful singers would fail. Falk is a stage animal. His every facial expression, every gesture, step, or shoulder position are impressive at every moment.

“Country Dance” becomes an apogee of the whole performance. After a brief moment of silence, the King appears dressed in green and pink and armed with lipstick. Welcome him to the stage! “Comfort Ye…” he starts Davies’ scornful allusion to Hendel’s Messiah, he looks around like a star stretching every moment at the zenith of fame. But he’s changing, and “…my people” came out from the mouth of another man — harsh and gravelly. And you cannot expect any good from him.

And here it comes, exploding with frustration, he reaches the orchestra and grabs a violin. There, the acting skill of Falk gives us another moment of magic — we know what will happen to the poor instrument, but in the King’s every step, you see the inner struggle, and for a moment, you catch a hope: What if it won’t? And then, it only hurts more to see the chips flying apart from hitting the floor.

The end is obvious. The orchestra stops playing. And percussion is the only sound. The inscription “Let Us Talk” is crossed out. And the Mad Kind is chained to his dead chair. He contemplates his death — you watch him fading, “He will die howling, howling, howling…”

It’s nothing to enjoy, you may say. And that’s not a thing we would like to reflect on in this hard time. I agree. And yet, Bayerische Staatsoper did it again. Or maybe, I should say Falk, and the ensemble, stagehands, and director did it.  These talented people were better than any expectations. Outstanding singing and acting and sensitive reading of the score built a perfect theatrical performance which is impossible not to be touched and moved by.

So to be clear it wasn’t a company who brought it (in fact, I think I’m not going to generalize people under the brand of a company, at least for some time now).

It was musicians. And in this exceptional performance, I’m simply happy and proud to see them.



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