Thursday, December 22, 2011

Opera meets Theater: Superb Neuenfels production of Reimann's Lear

Lear, Komische Oper Berlin, December 20 2011

Tómas Tómasson

Director ..... Hans Neuenfels
Conductor ..... Friedemann Layer
Co-director ... Henry Arnold

King Lear ..... Tómas Tómasson
King of France ..... Tilmann Rönnebeck
Duke of Albany ..... Hans Gröning
Duke of Cornwall ..... Christoph Späth
Earl of Kent ..... Thomas Ebenstein
Earl of Gloucester ..... Jens Larsen
Edgar, son of Gloucester ..... Martin Wölfel
Edmund, illegitimate son of Gloucester ..... Andreas Conrad
Goneril. daughter of Lear ..... Irmgard Vilsmaier
Regan, daughter of Lear ..... Erika Roos
Cordelia, daughter of Lear ..... Caroline Melzer
Fool ..... Elisabeth Trissenaar
Servant ..... Volker Herden
Knight ..... Michel Podwojski

Quite strange that there is no famous pre-20th century opera made after the Shakespeare tragedy King Lear. It was a very good idea to make one, especially when including the sparkling sonorities that Aribert Reimann juggles so brilliantly with.

Seeing this show was almost like a cultural shock for me. I have never listened to this opera before, and only sporadically to the Reimann's music in general. And here, I was almost instantly soaked in a musical vortex, that combined with the impressive staging, made a hugely passionate opera night for me. This is an example of what keeps me loving opera actually.

It took 10 years for Reimann to compose this chef d'oeuvre that finally was premiered in Munich 1979, in a production created by the top director at that time, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and --on the explicit composer's request-- with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role. The initial cast and the orchestra then recorded this opera (CD available), which is probably one of the reason why the opera survived the test of time. A couple of dozens of productions have been mounted worldwide since the premiere, and even an extra recording appeared recently (from Oper Frankfurt).

Nearly 30 years later, Komische Oper in Berlin asked Hans Neuenfels to bring his take on this passionate story and wonderfully composed opera to the stage of the Behrendstrasse house. This production was premiered in 2009-2010, that I unfortunately could not see. I was delighted when I saw that the Artistic Direction of the Komische decided to revive the production this season --farewell season for the house's director, Andreas Homoki--  and so I arranged my plans to be in Berlin during this run of  Lear.

SUPERB CAST (Jens Larsen unfortunately out of bounds)

Needless to say that the Hans Neuenfels production is brilliant -- that goes without saying.  It is so good that the show as it is would have been fitting any theater even without music and singing. Music and singing, in fact, add that extra dimensions, extra quality, that makes opera a unique art-form.

The actors are masterfully guided, and they all throw themselves into their respective roles giving it all they have. All three King's daughters are superbly acted and sung by three formidable sopranos: Caroline Melzer (whose Leonore at the Komische I loved dearly), Erika Roos (a stunning Elettra in Idomeneo last summer), and Irmgard Vilsmaier (astonishing Mère Marie in Carmélites last summer too.) All three deserve 5 stars for their scenic performance, while delivering in parallel a fascinating soprano-fest -- all three have big and 'dense' voices exposed in all their richness by this score that is filled with demanding passages situated at the top of the upper vocal register of all three of them.

To that add Tómas Tómasson who not only vocally excels in anything he sings, but also manages to delicately incarnate the King Lear's despair, which then progressively turn into full madness that will end with Lear joining his daughter in the tomb. It is, of course, not clear if he was lucid enough at that moment to realize that Cordelia was the only daughter who really loved and cared for him.

In the end of the first part he [Lear] kills his Fool -- that in this production is a narrator, a German actress, Elisabeth Trissenaar.  Fool does not disappear. Neuenfels keeps her on stage all the way, but as a mute ghost in the second part. During the first part she spoke with Lear, while in the second only King spoke -- that obviously help portraying the Lear's descent to madness.

Always superb Andreas Conrad employed his impressively luminous voice to incarnate the frustrated, vindictive  and vicious Edmund, who eventually --and after all the dreadful things he did-- gets killed by Edgar. Edgar, another tragic character, after going through tunnels of despair (the most poignant lyrical moments of the score, sung by Martin Wölfel) is saved by Lear, and then saves his own blind father from suicide. That gave him strength to go after Edmund and in this way avenge his own and his father's fate. The role of his father --Earl of Gloucester-- is sung and acted by the immense singer and actor of the Komische Oper, Jens Larsen.

The show opens with all protagonists on the stage -- all three daughters and their respective companions, in addition to the tired King Lear who decided to transfer power to his daughters. That and the following scene --in which Regan and Goneril express "love" for their father and enjoy seeing Cordelia being disinherited-- are happening with a giant projection of worms and maggots on the background wall. You may write an essay on that detail only... What is the meaning of worms and maggots in the background? 

The way Neuenfels presents two evil sisters is particularly brilliant. They are shown symmetrically: on one side of the stage is Goneril, dressed in a gray wearing a tie too, dreams of having children, but has four dolls at the kitchen table instead. Her husband, Duke of Albany, wears a skirt-looking garment made of tulle. That is enough to define the relation between the two: she orders, he executes... But that's a trap, of course: one should never take the initial impression as definite. Indeed, in the end Albany will be the only direct survivor directly involved in the story, and he remains the only comparably positive character in this bloodthirstiest of all tragedies. 

On the other side of the stage is egocentric Regan, in a pink skirt, and with a small black hat on the top. She has four dogs and a husband to take care of them. She needs unreserved admiration and unquestionable loyalty that only dogs are capable of.  Later on in the show, her dogs will help her 'handling' Gloucester. That is one of the dramatically and emotionally most extraordinary scenes in the show. It is musically stunning and the way Erika Roos acts it out is simply genius: she first incites her dogs to attack the old man, then is annoyed at her weak husband who cannot finish the job and gouge Gloucester's eyes out. Then she jumps on a helpless Gloucester and plunges her own fingers in his eye-hole. While the old man is screaming in agony, she's running around the stage... she laughs hysterically -- celebrating her victory, or of contentment for having punished a  'traitor'... but then she looks in the human eye in her hand and she starts screaming of horror, the dogs then turn as if ready to attack her...  To me, the way Neuenfels and Reimann penetrate the psychology of this horrific scene is the highlight of whatever opera was ever able to achieve! Musically these unbearable scenes are accompanied with impulses of music, repetitive motives, orchestral sparkles from which the high soprano notes jump out. Stunning is the right word to describe this!

How banal is then the death of Regan after all this?! Inadvertently poisoned by her own sister...  This is a drama in which everyone can kill anyone else, and that fear from death is slowly transferred  to public. Whenever two characters meet up on the stage you start fearing something might happen that will inadvertently end up in one of the two killed. Knowing that Neuenfels could alter the Shakespearean storyline if he wanted to, you're literally sitting on the edge of your seat for more than 2 hours. 

The only aria (if you can call it that way) in this opera is the King's lament, that I thought perfectly captured King's despair.

If you can possibly come to Berlin to see AND listen to this opera with this cast don't even think twice: it is a ginormous must-see.

I noticed that the Frankfurt Oper recently premiered their new production of this opera that will be on in March/April 2012, so if you cannot make it to Berlin, you can catch the Keith Warner production in Frankfurt.

If you saw King Lear the play, you know that it is always interesting to figure out the director's take-home message. Neuenfels seems to suggest that the winners of the bloodiest of battles are not their protagonists but the "auxiliaries" -- supporting roles.

As I mentioned above, I was not familiar with the score, nor I remember to have listened an opera conducted by Friedemann Layer, but I absolutely loved every second of what I could hear coming from the pit the other night at the Komische Oper.

Assorted production photos:

One extra photo found on the Internet:

Apparently Aribert Reimann and Hans Neuenfels met only once to discuss about King Lear at length

A few curtain call pics:

Friedmann Layer in front of Irmgard Vilsmaier, Andreas Conrad, Caroline Melzer and Tomás Tomásson

King Lear, Elisabeth Trissenaar, and Erika Roos

Martin Wölfel, Andreas Conrad, Irmgard Vilsmaier, Hans Gröning, Caroline Melzer



  1. No comments are deserved. I hate Eurotrash and consequently I hate Neuenfels's productions period.

    However,strictly on the musical ground,the performance was brilliant.5 stars to the singers.
    Tomasson is excellent!

  2. I would love to see this. I have been listening to the original cast recording but it's really the kind of opera that's hard to get into without the visual element.

  3. There's also a production in January at Staatsoper Hamburg.

  4. That's OK John. We don't have to like all the same things, but in this particular show there is really nothing that goes even slightly away from the Shakespeare play (or better, this libretto) But hey, we agree on the superb performers! ALL were truly great.

    I hear you Operaramblings! Most of the contemporary operas are like that (unless they're cheesy) but this is where the music marries impeccably with the stage action to exacerbate the dramatic or emotional intensity. Also the depth of the orchestral performance simply cannot be captured in recordings.

    Thx Frank for the heads up.

    Cheers everyone!

  5. Thank you for kind words! It's truly an honour to be a part of this amazing production.

  6. Wow! Erika is here ;)

    This was a truly amazing show, on all levels: musically, scenically, vocally... everything seemed to click right.

    You were brilliant as ever. This role must have been very tough to pull out properly, especially the episode I discussed above. You obviously have theater in you.

    Keep up the good work and I'm looking forward to seeing more of your performances at the Komische. Cheers