Staatsoper Berlin 2019-20 Review: Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor
Daniel Barenboim, René Pape Star In Vibrant Revival Of A Unique, If Challenging, WorkBy Elyse Lyon
(Credit: Monika Ritterhaus)
“Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor,” like the vast majority of Singspiele, is not well-known outside the German-speaking world. Even in its native Germany, it’s mounted infrequently.
Its story, however, is almost universally known. Like Verdi’s “Falstaff,” it’s closely based on Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor.” A few details are Germanized: Alice Ford becomes Frau Fluth, and her husband Herr Fluth; Meg Page and her spouse become Frau and Herr Reich; Slender is transformed into Spärlich, and Falstaff’s tipple of choice is no longer sack, but Sekt.
The work’s history is a curious one. Its Prussian-born composer, Otto Nicolai, was educated in Berlin, though much of his professional life was spent in Vienna and Italy. Only in his late 30s did he return to Berlin, having been offered the directorship of its Royal Opera House (today’s Staatsoper Berlin on Unter den Linden). In March of 1848, he assumed his new post. The following year, he conducted the premiere performance of “Lustigen Weiber.” Within two months, at the age of 38, he was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. He had presided over Unter den Linden for little more than a year. “Lustigen Weiber” was a tremendous success, but its composer barely lived to see it.
“Lustigen Weiber” has lately been neglected even by the opera house where it had its premiere. Its last performances, until this season’s, occurred in the era of divided Berlin, when the Staatsoper Unter den Linden was still an East German venue.
The Staatsoper, however, has spared no luxuries in returning it to the stage. Daniel Barenboim, at this season’s premiere, presided over a musical team that was first-rate through and through, from René Pape onstage as Falstaff through concertmaster Jiyoon Lee in the orchestra pit.
The work was received by an audience that had evidently missed it. Despite its long absence from Berlin stages, the premiere’s audience greeted it as an old friend. Their enjoyment was audible from the moment the curtain rose: laughter rippled through the theater, and applause followed ardently and often.
The Times Are Changing
David Bösch’s production, one suspects, was not to the taste of every audience member who applauded the performance with such appreciation.
Bösch has set the opera in the era of his own childhood: the late 1970s, the early 80s. The eponymous merry wives live in blocky midcentury homes, architectural relics that have outlived their fashionable newness and now appear grimy and stained. Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s Herr Reich barbecues meat on a Weber grill in his yard, the wall behind it smudgy with years of smoke and grease. Michael Volle as Herr Fluth apparently whiles away his days on the golf course. The merry wives themselves, sung by Mandy Fredrick and Michaela Schuster, drink nearly as much as Sir Falstaff does, and have acquired, in the process, portly middle-aged bodies.
One’s overall impression is of the unromantic plight of middle age. These characters are neither old nor young, neither innocent nor wise, not entirely miserable but far from satisfied. They coast along in life, revealing middle age as a second, less glamorous adolescence.
In stark contrast stand the youthful lovers: Anna Prohaska as Anna Reich (the Anne Page of Shakespeare’s play) and her beloved Fenton, splendidly sung by Pavol Breslik. Where their parent’s generation is visibly mired in the past, this young couple belongs to the future. They listen to Walkmans, they’re mad about grunge rock, they’re given to spray-painting graffiti and griping about how little their parents understand them. It’s an amusing portrait of youth, half comedy and half bittersweet truth.
Again and again, the production hints at a cynical message: that however different from their elders these young lovers feel and appear, the likelihood is that they, too, will end up mired in the dull squabbles of an unhappy middle-aged marriage. This message is most pointed when a youthful portrait of the unhappy Fluth couple appears onstage, hurled into a cardboard box as Frau Fluth threatens to divorce her jealous husband. The faces in this portrait are young and loving ones, not so dissimilar to those of Anna and Fenton. We’re reminded that someday these two young lovers will be middle-aged, and their children will repeat the same drama of adolescent romance and angst, never guessing that their parents were once the protagonists of a similar drama.
An Extraordinary Ensemble
In the meantime, however, the drama onstage is an engaging one.
Fenton and Anna might be doomed to repeat the mistakes of their elders, but Pavol Breslik and Anna Prohaska portrayed their romance with a gripping blend of humor and authenticity. Prohaska trotted the stage in a flurry of teenage angst, declaiming lines from “Romeo and Juliet” and cursing the pigheadedness of her parents.
Breslik sang of love with a bright-eyed lack of cynicism that was enough to touch even the most pessimistic heart. He prolonged some of his notes in a manner that could come off as sheer vocal flamboyance, but the effect was the opposite: he embodied the young man, wild with love, who threw everything he’s got into the present moment with no thought of reserving anything for the future. His character seemed to believe himself immortal, as youths of that type often do. Breslik, indeed, proved himself to be vocally inexhaustible.
And Breslik and Prohaska were only two members of an extraordinary cast.
The production, from beginning to end, was astonishing in its sheer wealth of vocal and dramatic talent. It was difficult to single out a particular singer as the star of the production.
René Pape not only sang Falstaff, but lived him: one forgets that it’s Pape onstage, and sees and hears only Falstaff. Michael Volle’s Herr Fluth was a similar tour de force, his jealous rages genuinely terrifying even in the context of comedy.
Michaela Schuster sang Frau Reich with wonderful zest and a dark, powerful voice. Mandy Friedrich’s Frau Fluth handled coloratura with ease, imbuing her extended aria in Act one with an impressive range of emotional shades. David Oštrek’s Dr. Cajus was not only beautifully sung but hilarious while Linard Vrielink’s Spärlich could bring you to tears with laughter. Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s bass is so gorgeously resonant that it seems to be utterly inhuman.
What makes these performances indelible was not only the brilliance of the individual singers, but the power of the ensemble as a whole. No soloist overpowered another.
This was most notable in the opening scene, when Mandy Friedrich’s soprano proved slightly small against the strength of the orchestra. Michaela Schuster’s strong mezzo could easily overcome the orchestra, but rather than one-upping her scene mate, she adjusted the force of her voice to match that of Friedrich’s. The result might have been less impressive in terms of pure volume, but it was remarkable for the commitment it displays toward working as an ensemble.
This opening scene was indicative of the whole. The soloists, both the superstars and those less well-known among them, presented themselves in an act of self-subsuming collaboration. They appeared far more concerned with giving their audience the gift of a phenomenal performance than with any kind of one-upmanship. The impact was both thrilling and humbling.
Fire in the Orchestra Pit
One of the many remarkable aspects of the performance was the gravity with which Barenboim handled Nicolai’s score. Though the Singspiel, as a genre, is often derided as frivolous middle-class entertainment, Barenboim treated “Lustigen Weiber” with the same seriousness accorded to a performance of Beethoven or Wagner. This is not to say that his interpretation lacked the appropriate comedy: it was packed with humor as well as with elegance, toe-tapping tunes and dramatic tension as well as with classical beauty. At times, the orchestra served to amplify the characters’ emotions; in other moments, it poked fun at them.
At times, the contrast between the ethereal delicacy of the orchestral interpretation and the hijinks on stage did become jarring. Under Barenboim’s baton, the overture seemed a sound-painting of the entire work in miniature: one heard, in the minutes before the curtain rises, the galumphing of oafish Falstaff, the teasing humor of the merry wives, and the innocent femininity of youthful Anna Reich—and yet Anna Reich, in this staging, was not in fact innocent at all. She yelled obscenities, flashed the Devil’s Horns, smoked cigarettes and drank, all while sporting fishnets, sooty eye makeup, and a tattoo of her beloved’s name. While Falstaff was well-represented by the brash, blundering tone of the music, Bösch’s representation of Anna and Fenton clashed oddly with the classical grace and elegance of Barenboim’s conducting.
The orchestral interpretation, however, was still one of unmitigated delight. Barenboim, on the night of the premiere, was not the only star in the orchestra pit. So was his concertmaster was Jiyoon Lee, the youngest concertmaster of the Staatsoper’s orchestra ever to be awarded lifetime tenure. Though Lee’s name might not be singled out on the cast list, the unique quality she brings to the orchestra pit is unmistakable. A soloist in her own right, she played with breathtaking originality and poise. Her presence in the pit seemed to inspire the entire orchestra, particularly the strings, to spectacular musical feats. Her individuality was just as evident as that of any of the soloists onstage: the music erupted from the orchestra pit in dizzying waves of pure intensity, like sheets of precisely controlled flame.
At a later performance, with Wolfram Brandl as concertmaster, Lee’s individual voice—that poised, intensely passionate originality—was audibly missing. The orchestra played wonderfully, but without the same exhilarating quality Lee inspired as concertmaster.
A Problematic Work
Despite—or rather because of—the wealth of delights in “Lustigen Weiber,” some critics find the work a problematic one. The libretto is not only deeply misogynistic to modern eyes but also mocks foreigners in a way that’s uncomfortable to watch amid the current political environment. Dr. Cajus, Anna Reich’s French suitor, speaks a muddle of overwrought French and cartoonishly inept German. Not only is his pronunciation comically poor, but his verbs are entirely unconjugated.
There’s something peculiar and uneasy in a performance like this one. The work is uniquely German, its libretto colored by xenophobia, and some of the comedy is inaccessible to anyone not intimately familiar with the German language and its dialects. The local audience greeted the work as an old friend, whereas to the majority of foreigners in the crowd, it was a stranger. Meanwhile, however, the musical wizardry we heard was driven by foreigners in the orchestra pit: Barenboim, with his muddle of non-German citizenships, and the Korean Jiyoon Lee (who is not only the orchestra’s youngest tenured concertmaster, but also its first Asian—and its first female—ever to assume the position).
As for the work’s misogynistic side, Bösch’s production neither magnified the problematic aspects nor noticeably mitigated them. One of the most troubling facets of the work was the manner in which it made comedy of the Fluths’ unpleasant marriage. In the era of #metoo, its treatment of a jealous, ragingly dangerous husband as a subject for light comedy struck many viewers as irresponsible.
Michael Volle, however, brought a hideous reality to the role of Herr Fluth. His paroxysms of rage were not the stuff of comedy, but of horror. If he had sung the role in a cartoonish manner, downplaying Herr Fluth’s rages into clownish tantrums, the production would have been far more problematic. Instead, his performance became a reminder of the reality of abuse. Its effect was reminiscent of “Candide,” Bernstein’s light comedy of rape, war, slavery, and humanity’s penchant for religious and ethnic violence. As with “Candide,” the comedy itself is part of the underlying sternness of message: the fact that we laugh implicates us in the evils the comedy portrays.
All in all, the performance is one of staggering richness. A work that could have been mere entertainment reveals unanticipated treasures. Youth and naïveté; the seed of horror at the heart of light comedy; the freshness of naïve young love, and the confused quasi-adolescence of middle age. Between Barenboim’s spellbinding conducting, Jiyoon Lee’s fiery brilliance, and the thrill of an astonishingly talented, star-studded cast working in harmonious concert, one left the theater feeling exhilarated, as if having drunk deeply and refreshed oneself at the spring of life.