Saturday, December 31, 2011

Alcina at Semperoper: birth of a great opera director -- Jan Philipp Gloger

Alcina, Semperoper Dresden, November 4th 2011

Director ..... Jan Philipp Gloger
Conductor ..... Rainer Mühlbach

Alcina ..... Amanda Majeski
Ruggiero ..... Barbara Senator
Bradamante ..... Christa Mayer
Morgana ..... Nadja Mchantaf
Melisso ..... Markus Butter
Oronte ..... Simeon Esper
Oberto ..... Elena Gorshunova
Chorista 1 ..... Manuel Günther
Chorista 2 ..... Michael Kranebitter

Staatskapelle Dresden

Jan Philipp Gloger (JPG) is a very young German director that we will be talking about in 2012 around the premiere of The Flying Dutchman that he is preparing for the opening of the next Festival in Bayreuth. The only other opera he's produced so far is Le nozze di Figaro in Augsburg, earlier this year -- the production that the fellow blogger Musica Sola saw and liked a lot.

Alcina is a totally different kind of `beast' and it was interesting to see how Jan Philipp would cope with a far-fetched libretto, if he would be able to sustain the attention of the crowd in a long opera, and in a repertoire that the Semperoper public is less familiar with.

I should stop here for a few lines and express my admiration for Ulrike Hessler and her exemplary way to run Semperoper. Besides a tricky production of the Paris version of Tannhäuser, presented on Good Friday, and Stefan Herheim shows (everything phenomenally sung!), she took a huge risk with this Alcina: this was to be the first baroque opera performed on the main stage of this prestigious house, which they mounted without engaging any big star of the baroque repertoire. Instead, they wanted to make it all new and confided a job to a 30 year old hyper-talented director who never produced a baroque opera before, and let Rainer Mühlbach --Dresden native-- take charge of the musical side of the production. Rainer is experienced in the Mozart operas but not in baroque. Add to that the astonishing Semperoper troupe, who took responsibility to bring this opera to life in the best of ways, and you have an almost futuristic production. This is what the opera will look like in this or next decade, I believe.
Knowing that the Semperoper is a rather "tradition rules" kind of house, this was a very audacious initiative on so many levels. But hey -- it worked! It was one of the most enjoyable opera evenings for me in 2011, and if you scroll back you will see that I attended way too many opera shows in 2011. You could've sensed in auditorium that everyone involved in this show was focused, desired to do well,  gave 100%, and enjoyed the moment to be there and perform.

To situate the theatrical profile of JPG in one sentence, I'd say he has elements of the crystal-clearness of Bieito, and the sensibility close to that of Warlikowski (without cinematographic references), but it eventually is something else -- a new quality.

Let me briefly take you through the show, so you can see the way Gloger interpreted the libretto, the synopsis of which you can read here.

His Alcina is a glamorous femme fatale. She is aware of her beauty and her irresistible attractiveness and use it to a full potential to seduce as many men as possible. This feeds her ego and makes her ever more cruel towards all these men who lost their mind for her: some of them are obsessed by her, the others are ruined. Oberto comes and looks for his father [one of those men who got deadly in love with Alcina, and are now in her possession; on the stage he is indeed there but like a ghost... Oberto cannot find him even though he feels his presence.] Ruggero comes and he too falls for Alcina. She plays with him through the labyrinth of love, and he falls desperately in love with her. Even the warnings by Oronte that Alcina manipulates her men to destroy them more easily, only make his love for her stronger. Bradamante comes to look for her men, and there we understand that Bradamante is Ruggero's wife, and that she came with her friend/lawyer Melisso to look for her husband who left her and their children for another woman. She is a woman who fights for her man, for the father of her children. In parallel happens the drama with Alcina: Alcina sees her reflection in the mirror and fears the inexorable aging might soon diminish her charms and beauty, her power. This is why she gets obsessed by the idea of keeping Ruggero close to her. He is proof of her power and letting him go would be a confirmation that she is not as beautiful and seductive as she used to be. Bradamante and Melisso will convince Ruggero to leave Alcina, and come back to his family; in fact Melisso will remind him of his legal duties to his family, and Bradamante will try to bring him to his senses by reminding him of their children.
Alcina is devastated by the loss of Ruggero and ends in a psychiatric ward. Ruggero instead cannot live tormented between his love for Alcina and his duty as pater familias and commits suicide. Alcina, years later, remains totally alone, alone with her memories... there is nobody around her, only an old painting reminding her how young, beautiful and loved she once was.

The success of this passionate interpretation is very much due to creative intelligence of the set designer -- Ben Baur. The stage is organized in three layers filling the depth of the stage, and they are in almost constant movement showing various chambers of a big Alcina's house. Soon it starts feeling like a labyrinth populated by lost souls of all those men who fatally fell in love with her. As the drama progresses Alcina in fact gets trapped in her own labyrinth. In the end, the sets dissolve (in a way similar to what Malgorzata Szczesniak does in the Warlikowski productions) and disappear from the stage, leaving the empty space with Alcina sitting alone in the background -- with a painting and a clump of her old things.

Baur is under 30 too, and it is astonishing how beautifully the stage movements follow the music and let the drama progress emphasizing the poetry of it while being very straightforward at the same time. Glogger masterfully guide the actors to make the whole show clear, yet poetic and stylish -- including the non-trivial, surprising albeit plausible ending. As I said above, to me this is how I believe the intelligent opera productions will look like in 2010-2020... when the opera houses start hiring younger and/or more intelligent directors.

The cast is composed entirely of the members of the Semperoper ensemble. They do a very good job. Nobody is really great-great, but they are all powerful to easily fill up the large auditorium of the Semperoper. They are scenically magnificent -- you could see the complicity among them in the stage action.

Amanda Majeski incarnates Alcina with passion and even if her medium is a bit too bright for Alcina, she is more comfortable in the higher range of her voice where she brings all the nuances of the character. Barbara Senator is excellent as Ruggero even if she gets a bit tired towards the end. She carried the show together with Amanda and invested all their charisma in their respective characters.  It took me a bit to get used to the timbre of Morgana, Nadja Mchantaf, but her vocal engagement is so big that I ended up shouting bravo after her Torna Mi A Vagheggiar [in this production she tries to seduce Melisso --the lawyer and Bradamante's friend-- and thereby help Alcina]

Christa Mayer is well known as Erda, as a lieder-singer, but baroque?! I was saying naah before the show, and cringed a bit at the beginning but she manages to vocally sculpt a  compelling portrait of Bradamante -- of a woman determined to who fight for her man, no matter what... Finally, Markus Butter, Simeon Esper, and Elena Gorshunova complete the main roles by being totally in command of their respective roles.

Rainer Mühlbach conducted his orchestra with modesty --without a new reading of the score-- and with great precision.

I'll be back to Dresden!

Production photos ©Matthias Creutziger

Jan Philipp Gloger, geboren 1981 in Hagen, studierte Angewandte Theaterwissenschaft in Gießen und Regie in Zürich. Seit 2007 arbeitet er als freischaffender Schauspielregisseur unter anderem am Bayerischen Staatsschauspiel München, am Theater Augsburg, am Staatstheater Mainz und am Deutschen Theater Berlin. Er zeigte Inszenierungen bei der Ruhrtriennale und beim Heidelberger Stückemarkt und erhielt den Regiepreis der Bayerischen Theatertage 2008. In der Spielzeit 2011/12 wird er Leitender Regisseur am Staatstheater Mainz und setzt seine Beschäftigung mit Oper, die er mit Mozarts »Le nozze di Figaro« am Theater Augsburg begonnen hat, an der Semperoper Dresden fort, wo er 2011/12 Händels »Alcina« inszeniert.

My photos:

Amanda Majeski, Christa Mayer, Simeon Esper, and Markus Butter

Bradamante, Alcina, and Ruggero

Barbara Senator, Amanda Majeski, and Rainer Mühlbach



  1. It has been a terrific production, which I was lucky to follow the premiere. (review in German)

    Happy New Year and all the Best from Dresden for 2012 :)

  2. Thanks! Same to you.

    This was a truly fascinating production, and entirely the opposite to what was done at the Staatsoper in Vienna with Alcina full of stars in a snoozer-production.

    Soon you will have Lulu on the program -- in a very good production that I saw at its premiere in Copenhagen.


  3. I'm jealous, obviously... I just have to hope they will revive it in a coming season. I saw not only Gloger's Figaro, but also 3 theater plays, one of which was just OK, but the two others were terrific too.
    As I wrote on my blog, you will have a last chance to see his Figaro at Heilbronn Theater, not too far from Stuttgart, in the spring, with the crew from Augsburg.

  4. You should be [jealous]! ;) Thanks for the heads-up. I'll try and combine a trip to Stuttgart and Heilbronn.

    Did you go to Basel during the Xmas brak? I'll blog about Wozzeck (grandioso) and Rusalka (less good but with the gloriously singing Svetlana Ignatovich)

  5. Perhaps one clarification is appropriate: It was not the first baroque opera shown at Dresden. In last year they had a fine production of Poppea (it happened to become the first "full" opera performance I'm attended, and it appears that it was also the first staging ever of Poppea at Dresden) in which the baroque specialists Cappella Sagittariana Dresden played. This time it was Staatskapelle Dresden which so far hardly anyone connected with baroque music. It was a fundamental decision to mount this production with own resources only, and Rainer Mühlbach called it an international trend that the baroque repertoire is a matter not only of specialists but meanwhile also of the big orchestras of which some are already more experienced in this field than others. What I can say about the result is that the use of two distinctively different continuo groups (an idea that emerged only during the rehearsals) made a good point, and the soloist parts of the lutes and the viol were really impressive, just like the bold approach to simply discard the original happy end (in the words of Rainer Mühlbach: "You will understand it when you see it" -- indeed).

    What should be also mentioned when talking in general about Ulrike Hessler and, not to forget, her team which came in from two ones of your "fave house" list (Stuttgart and Theater an der Wien): The obvious sense for people who have not been socialized with opera and so called high culture in general. Previously nothing had been done in the field of audience development at Dresden, since the opinion was that in times of tight budgets other priorities must be set to keep the house attractive for the tourists. Other priorities than the -- now of course very well appreciated -- local audiences in general. And one must face it: The tourists in doubt come for the building, not for what happens on stage. It speaks for itself how since 1985, when the building had been reopened, its name drove out the actual name of the opera company (Staatsoper Dresden; after 1990 it had been considered necessary to prolong it to Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden as if nobody knows of which state Dresden is the capital) completely, a situation they now escaped by putting the "Semperoper Dresden" label on the company.

    And so now looking forward to Lulu in February...

    1. This programme (of rather 90 than the indicated 60 minutes) will include an excerpt announced as documentary recording (this because it sounds like a bootleg) from the first night. If so someone else ended up shouting bravo there the same way...

      Probably only one more performance of Alcina will follow on July 7, I just saw that the one originally scheduled for July 4 has apparently been cancelled. Shucks, was considering to attend it.

      And what became of Lulu: Reviews are positive, even enthusiastic. Only exception is the largest German tabloid, and it needs a lot of calmness to simply take its article as another form of praise. A comment on this matter:

      I was worried about the attendance figures after last minute tickets have, besides the invitation of pupils, been released for the first night. But the second performance was well attended (in the reduced CC seating plan with only stalls and first tier it appeared to be almost sold out) and only very few seats remained empty after the second interval. It was a bit of a challenge, perhaps, the applause started a little bit reserved but then the approval was clear and unanimous.

      Most challenging was anyway not the production but something else: The first row of seats had been taken out of the stalls. So one had to enter the fifth row for the seat in row 6 -- need I say more!

      Kai (still without an own blog to refer to)

  6. I was in Basel between Christmas and New Year's Eve, indeed; I even made critics of Carmen and Rusalka on Resmusica (sorry I didn't mention them on my blog...). I saw the Wozzeck too, but it was rather awkward, since because I hated what I heard from the pit (too loud, too confused, not doing justice to Berg's clarity - see Nagano or the rare live recording by Carlos Kleiber!) I was not very open to what I saw on the stage.
    Are you going to Munich's Don Carlo? I'm there on January 15th...

  7. I saw this young woman perform as Ottone in Griselda last summer at Santa Fe. A great effort on her part, and as well from the southern California musicians in the pit; alas, the production didn't do her any favors. She was one of the high points for me.