Review: Power Verdi – Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli in Deutsche Oper Berlin “Ballo”, April 25, 2009

On this Spring’s trip to Northern Germany, I was able to sample the fare at three opera houses. My comments on the  performances attended at Hamburg Staatsoper and Berlin Staatsoper have been posted previously. The third company visitied was the venerable Deutsche Oper Berlin, which I found of particular interest.

I attended just one performance at the company – a revival of Götz Friedrich’s 1993 production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (there billed as “Ein Maskenball”), with sets and costumes by Gottfried Pilz and Isabel Ines Glathar. The Friedrich “Ballo” inspired further thinking on several of the subjects discussed previously at some length on this website – the state of Verdi singing, the staging of Verdi operas, the concept of “docu-operas” that supposedly relate events in the lives of historical personages, and current issues relating to the financing and production of operas throughout the world. Some of my thoughts appear in this post, others I will comment upon at a later date.

As a long-time observer of the San Francisco Opera, one of the most interesting things about the Deutsche Oper is that it is scheduled to become the principal operatic home of the San Francisco Opera’s departing musical director, Conductor Donald Runnicles, who assumes the musical directorship – generalmusikdirektor – at that house this midsummer.

[Below: Donald Runnicles, who will become Deutsche Oper Berlin’s General Musical Director in August, 2009; edited image, based on a photograph for San Francisco Opera.]

Runnicles’ 18 year career in San Francisco is one that I have followed closely, having attended at least one performance of almost every opera he conducted at that house. Anyone interested in the history of the San Francisco Opera cannot but be impressed by his artistic dominance over almost every part of the San Francisco Opera’s repertory since his arrival in 1992.

Deutsche Oper is, of course, the house over which the production designer-director Götz Friedrich presided as intendant from 1981 until his death in 2000. One of Friedrich’s proteges, Kirsten Harms, now serves as intendantin. Harms and Runnicles are scheduled for an artistic colloboration beyond their administrative one, when the current season’s new Harms production of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” (which had its premiere in November 2008) is revived this coming September, with Runnicles the scheduled conductor.

In fact, Runnicles will have much to do in the Wagnerian repertory in the 2009-10 season beyond “Tannhäuser” , as he will be presiding over a revival of Friedrich’s production of the four operas of the “Ring of the Nibelungs”. He conducted the Friedrich “Ring” at Deutsche Oper in 2007, which helped create a bond between Runnicles and the Deutsche Oper’s orchestra that should help Runnicles achieve a successful start in his new role.

Beyond the Wagnerian repertory, Runnicles will also repeat his masterful conception of Puccini’s first great success, “Manon Lescaut”, as well as Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”. All seven of his opera assignments in his first season in Berlin role will be operas that he performed with great acclaim in San Francisco. (My reviews of four operas he conducted in San Francisco that he will conduct in Deutsche Oper’s 2009-2010 season – Manon Lescaut, Der Rosenkavalier, Tannhäuser and Das Rheingold – are hyperlinked at the end of this post.)

But checking out the new operatic home in which Runnicles plans to reside was not the only subject of my curiosity. For the past couple of years, I have been chronicling my travels to various opera companies to hear and see world class performances of Verdi’s operas. My current trip to Berlin added more names to my current list of Verdian singers of the first rank, first at the Staatsoper in a provocative treatment of a subject Verdi first tackled in the early part of his career (See Power Verdi: Stoyanov, Valayre Mesmerizing in Berlin Staatsoper “Macbeth” – April 24, 2009).

The subsequent evening, at the Deutsche Oper, I was able to see, for the first time, the late Götz Friedrich’s 1993 production of “Ballo in Maschera”. Two of its main stars, Angela Marambio (Amelia)  and Lado Ataneli (Anckarström), I had reviewed previously, respectively in Paris and San Diego.  Berlin’s Gustavo was the Bulgarian tenor, Kamen Chanov, who provided a strong performance, well-received by the Berlin audience, adding yet another tenor to my list of Verdi voices for the new millenium.

[Below: Kamen Chanev is Gustavo in Deutsche Oper’s “Ein Maskenball”.]

Götz Friedrich’s Gay Gustavo Docu-Opera

The 1993 production was vintage Friedrich, with each of the nuances that the term “vintage” denotes in contemporary English. It visits the Swedish court rumors that King Gustavus III, who had promoted French drama and been a prominent patron of the theater, might have engaged in gay activities.

The idea of a king favoring a male favorite rather too much for the nobles of his court, leading some of them (at obvious risk to themselves) to conspire to assassinate the offending monarch might very well make an interesting opera, and certainly a plot could be constructed that ensnares either William II or Edward II of England that would make great theater.

Those who plumb the accounts of the historical Gustavus, an “enlighted despot” who seems enlightened in his art and culture and despotic in his politics, can find enough eccentricities to have a field day in mounting a new production of any “docu-opera” about him, although there seems to have been no historical personage comparable to Edward II’s Piers Gaveston in the Swedish court.

But the existence of the soprano role of the exuberant Oscar, the only musico character in a Verdi opera, and the historical fact that Gustavus was a patron of French theater have led to “Ballo” productions that 1) intimate a sexual relationship between Oscar and Gustavo, and/or 2) emphasize the theatrical nature of Gustavus’ court, with the obvious tie-in to masquerades, stage curtains and hidden identities.

[Below: The page-boy Oscar (here, Elena Tsallagova, center left) is kissed by the cross-dressing King Gustavo (here, Juan Jose de Leon, center right) edited image, based on a Marcus Lieberenz photograph for the Deutsche Oper Berlin.]

There have been two important operas written about the conspiracy against Gustavus and his assassination – Auber’s “Le Bal Masque” with libretto by Eugene Scribe and Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera”. The latter opera used Scribe’s libretto, but reworked it to meet Verdi’s needs (including transferring its locale to Massachusetts, as the censors of the time would not permit a dramatic presentation of the assassination of a ruling European monarch).

As odd as the storyline common to the two operas might seem, it not only has some internal consistency, but, in defense of those who feel that the story has to be set in Stockholm rather than Boston, Verdi’s opera seems to have some relationship to what we can discern across the centuries about Gustavus’ “lifestyle”. He did, in fact, seem to have an unrequited love interest in a lady of the nobility, and he did wreak vengeance on his perceived enemies with sufficient brutality to inspire a group of the nobility to risk life and fortune to get rid of him.

But Friedrich’s interests in the material go far beyond (or fall far short of, whichever way you wish to describe it) either the somewhat murky historical account or the Auber/Verdi operatic story. He chooses to transform the first two scenes of the opera (Act I’s first scene in the royal court and second in Ulrica’s “lair”) into a world that Gustavus III, Scribe. Auber or Verdi could not have imagined, while returning to what, some curiosities notwithstanding, are basically traditional second and third acts.

How to describe Friedrich’s conceptualization of the “Ballo” first act? Imagine that, somehow, Gustavo presides over an imaginary 18th century Stockholm which every year has a Gay Pride parade. Then conceptualize Gustavo, Oscar and all of the men of the chorus in the first scene cavorting on one of the parade’s floats. Next, think of Ulrica (Madame Arvidson) and all of the women of the chorus in the second scene, having a float for their own cavorting. Then imagine that Gay Pride day has come to an end and everyone of whatever orientation goes about their regular business for the rest of the Opera.

Many persons who know Verdi’s opera well may be suspicious that such a spin on the opera’s libretto would not make much sense in performance, and with them I will agree. Scribe only loosely based the libretto used by Auber on the historical Swedish conspiracy and assassination. Then Verdi had to arrange to revise Scribe’s libretto to meet a more conservative generation of censors.

The resulting story-line simply does not sustain the weight of such a fantastic departure from the original story as was concocted by Friedrich. (Beyond its gratuitous disservice to Verdi’s intentions, the production reinforces stereotypes and caricatures of a social minority, many of whose members comprise a much needed part of opera audiences.)

Notes on the Production

As Scene I of the first act opens, Gustavo (Kamen Chanev) is preening before a mirror, then slips into a woman’s ball dress, and teases Oscar, who is elegantly dressed in men’s evening wear. The men of the court sit in white shirts and suspenders behind a red-lit scrim. Only Anckarström (Lado Ataneli) appears to take the affairs of state seriously. The men of the chorus prance over effeminately to join Oscar and Gustavo who plan to disguise themselves for a visit to the abode of the fortune teller, Ulrica.

[Below: the courtiers (men of the Deutsche Oper Berlin chorus) don costumes for their visit to a fortune teller to the dismay of Count Anckarström (here, Etienne Dupuis, far left) and the delight of King Gustavo (Juan Jose de Leon, center right); edited image, based on a Marcus Lieberenz photograph for the Deutsche Oper Berlin.]

The fortune teller’s abode is filled with women dressed in lingerie who, to Ulrica’s incantations, are engaged in sexual embraces and illicit contact. The most prominent stage furnishings are tall rectangular forms (a form repeated in the next scene as the even taller rectangular gibbet) that seem to represent small rooms or cubicles intended for sexual encounters or perhaps the windows of live “peep shows”.

Christian, a sailor who seems to prefer to spend his liberty among predatory Lesbians, is pawed by some of them. When a messenger of Amelia arrives requesting a private audience for his mistress, Ulrica clears the room (although Gustavo hides in a place where he can observe what happens next).

Amelia arrives in a traveling coach carried on the shoulders of four of her henchmen, and, overheard by Gustavo, obtains the information from Ulrica on the herb she is to gather at the gibbet. (In an obvious departure from the director’s intentions, as Amelia is carried offstage, the henchmen lose their balance and jostle Senora Marambio, who, riding in the coach on their shoulders, surely believed for a moment she would be falling sideways onto the stage floor.)

[Below: Gustavo (Juan Jose de Leon, right) overhears Amelia (Adrienne Pieczonka, center) asking the advice of Madame Arvidson (Judit Karasi, left ) as to how to forget a forbidden love; edited image, based on a Marcus Lieberenz photograph for the Deutsche Opera Berlin.]

Gustavo’s courtiers and Ulrica’s women now fill the stage, with one of the more sexually aggressive of the men obviously trying to feel up an annoyed Oscar. Then Ulrica’s palmistry, her prophecy about details of Gustavo’s death, the arrival of Ataneli’s Anckarstroem and his unmasking of the conspirators take place and from this point on it is more or less traditional production of “Ballo”.

[Below: Madame Arvidson (here, Judit Karasi, left) reading the palm of the disguised Gustavo (here, Juan Jose de Leon, center front), makes a disquieting prophecy; edited image, bwed on a Marcus Lieberenz photograph, courtesy of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.]

Amelia arrives at a gibbet where human skulls lay about, encounters Gustavo, the two are surprised, the conspirators play games with the skulls, and an angry Anckarstroem takes his wife back to the city.

[Below: King Gustavo (here, Juan Jose de Leon, left) finds Amelia (here, Adrienne Pieczonka) searching for an herb among the skulls underneath a gibbet; edited image, based on aMarcus Lieberenz photograph, courtesy of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.]

The Anckarstroem household, represented by a small white interior room open to the stage, is a wreck, with its sparse white furnishings overturned and Amelia bound and held by her husband. The conspirators arrive, the assassination plans are made, and Oscar’s hand-delivered invitation inadvertently provides the conspirators the time and place to do the deed (and the second of the two brilliant “Ballo” quintets in each of which the two conspirators Samuele and Tommaso join Oscar and two of the other principal singers)

Then the king sings his third act solo and inspects a model for a theater stage, which will remain in audience view until the end of the opera. Then one sees the ballroom floor where the masquerade will take place. It is a rotating stage on which several mannequins are placed. The principal singers, chorus members and dancers move about the stage, in an imaginative setting of the ball. When Gustavo is mortally wounded and enlists the sympathy of all, including those who plotted his death, he stands up and as the angelic music of the closing bars is heard, he knocks over the model stage in such a way that its curtain closes.

This is my third review of a “Ballo” production in the past three years, including a traditional Swedish production originally created for Washington National Opera by Zack Brown, and last presented in 2006 by San Francisco Opera (Missing “That 70’s Show”: S. F. “Ballo” — September 17, 2006 ) and a conceptualization by Olivier Tambosi and Frank Philipp Schloessman for Lyric Opera of Chicago (that I saw and reviewed in Houston) that moved the opera to a fantasyland governed by “King Riccardo” (See: Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007.) Both Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera, one imagines, are considering new productions (or productions new to their company) of this repertory staple.

Friedrich’s legacy is still much in evidence at Deutsche Oper, with many of his productions still periodically revived. In fact, in the current 2008-09 season, besides “Ballo”,  six other Friedrich productions – Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” (1978), Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (1980) and “Lohengrin” (1990), Puccini’s “La Boheme” (1981), Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin” (1996) and Verdi’s “La Traviata” (1999) were revived. In the upcoming 2009-2010 season, only “Traviata” remains out of the repertory, and seven other Friedrich productions – Verdi’s “Falstaff” (1977), Wagner’s “Rheingold” (1984), “Walkuere” (1984), “Siegfried” (1985), “Götterdämmerung” (1985) and “Die Meistersinger” (1993) and Orff’s “Carmina Burana” (1995) are revived.

Inevitably, some of Friedrich’s more routine work will be retired and replaced with new productions. The Friedrich “Ballo” at some point surely will be included in this category. In the meantime, however, yet another revival of Friedrich’s “Ballo” is scheduled for next October, with Marambio joined by Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Anckarstroem) and Marcelo Alvarez (Gustavo).

At some later point in time, this website will discuss what criteria should be used to judge whether a production of this work, that seems to baffle some of opera’s creative minds, is successful. However, there is no doubt that Deutsche Oper’s audience was well-served by the singers in the four principal roles – Chanev, Marambio, Ataneli and Martina Welschenbach (Oscar).

Chanev, who is known in the United States to opera audiences in Atlanta and Philadelpha, has an expressive, full-bodied spinto voice, with the weight to take on much heavier Verdian tenor roles.

Marambio, whom I had seen in Paris in 2004 as Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme” opposite the Rodolfo of Rolando Villazon, proved to be as appealing and accomplished an Amelia as she was a Mimi. She was especially memorable in her second act scene with Ataneli, where, bound by ropes and kneeling, she delivers her poignant request to see her son a last time.

[Below: Chilean soprano Angela Marambio, here as Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme” with Rolando Villazon’s Rodolfo; edited image, based on a photograph for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City.]

I have had the fortune to see most of the great Verdi baritones of the second half of the twentieth century and this first decade of the millenium as well – including Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi, Ettore Bastianini (my first Anckarstroem), Ingvar Wixell, Sherill Milnes, Paolo Gavanelli and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I believe that Ataneli, without any doubt in my mind, belongs in this esteemed list. (For a recent review, see: Power Verdi: Ataneli, Vargicova Excel in San Diego Opera “Rigoletto” – March 28, 2009.)

Also worthy of note was the sprightly Oscar of Martina Welschenbach. My principal reservation among the Deutsche Oper principals in this performance was the Ulrica, Elizabetta Fiorillo, to whose voice, with a wider vibrato spread than my taste prefers, I could not relate to in a part that requires a deep, secure lower register, and peerless legato.

The conductor was Michail Jurowski. At two different points in the opera, the orchestra found itself struggling to get in time with a different principal artist  onstage. Whoever was at fault, Jurowski took the boos from members of the Berlin audience. For all the other artists, the audience was generous with its applause. When it seemed the bows were over, the curtains had to be opened again after much of the audience was on its way out, so that the principals could take bows yet another time to the significant numbers that continued their ovations.

Thus, on consecutive evenings in Berlin, I was able to see two beautifully sung Verdi operas, with almost every cast position at both the Berlin Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper Berlin filled with an artist who is worth traveling a considerable distance to hear and see. Both casts appeared in problematic productions, but the quality of the singing outweighs the negatives that those who take Verdi’s intentions seriously would see.

The announced seasons of both companies suggest that Berlin will be a glorious place for operatic singing in 2009-2010 as well, and, for those persons who know the power of Conductor Donald Runnicles in the repertory of Wagner, Puccini and Richard Strauss, a Berlin vacation with ample time to attend the Deutsche Oper is to be encouraged.

For additional reviews of Maestro Runnicles’ performances in San Francisco of operas he is scheduled to conduct in 2009-2010 in Berlin, see: World Class “Manon Lescaut” – S. F. Opera November 19, 2006

and, S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007

and, Charismatic S. F. “Tannhauser” – October 12, 2007

and, Delavan Shines in a Gleaming San Francisco “Rheingold” – June 14, 2008

and, Pure Gold: A Second Look at S. F.’s “American Ring Rheingold” – June 22, 200