Armida - Komische Oper Berlin, 5 April 2009
Gluck said that an opera's overture ought to indicate the subject and prepare the spectators for the character of the piece they are to see.
Advice that Calixto Bieito must have taken to heart for his Armida. There were more bare botties on stage in the first five minutes than you'd see in a whole season at the Royal Opera House, a trusty indication of the oddly unsecksy flesh-fest which was to follow. All male, apart from one bewildered-looking granny, their function was to service the desires of Armida and her lady friends, a bunch of corporate dragonesses in ohso-passé Ally McBeal suits.
Welcome to the Komische Oper, Berlin's racier version of the ENO, where seats are cheap, audiences are young and open-minded, operas are sung in the local language, and producers are given free rein.
Bieito's Armida has no interest in the joyless parade of flesh, and I do see her point. Was it even intended to shock? However outrageous the photos may look (scroll down for more), a sort of Benny Hill daftness soon sets in.
So Armida's target is the fully-clothed Rinaldo. But he's not that interested. Torn between fascination and rage she swears to kill him, but she can't make herself follow through, even with the help of the Marlene Dietrich-like figure of 'Hate'. So they fall in love, but then his mates burst through the walls of the stalls like G20 rioters (an amazing bit of theatre) to try and winkle him out of her clutches. They don't succeed, and the whole thing ends with a triumphant murder-suicide. Along the way there's a bit of lipstick lesbianism, a raped nun, a guy dancing with a ten foot python and the granny gets it on with a hunk while swinging in a chair ten foot above the stage. Classic Bieito.
This deconstructionist approach can be revelatory in more familiar works. I loved his Don Giovanni for example. Here I wasn't so sure. Though the snatched moments between the lovers were rendered truly tenderly (if only by contrast), a lot of the action seemed superfluous and merely decorative.
On a more technical level, I was impressed all round - by the blocking, the personenregie, the clarity of expression, and particularly the seamlessness of the production. Even though this is a 'number' opera, the action continued intelligently in a single narrative flow through the often lengthy ballets and interludes. Bieito truly is one of the great craftsmen of the operatic stage, and the massive applause he received at the end (very few boos) recognised his achievement.
Maria Bengtsson doesn't have the largest of voices, but it's the right sort of silvery soprano for the demanding central role and she was convincing throughout. The lush mezzo of Maria Gortsevskaya as Hate was even more impressive, her malevolent presence never slipping into caricature. Some of the other voices weren't quite 'baroque' enough and some simply weren't loud enough. But it was generally sung well, though the clunky German translation (from the original French) did it no favours, and some sloppy diction (no surtitles here) often rendered the action mystifying.
The baroque specialist Konrad Junghänel conducted the Komische Oper orchestra and their modern instruments sensitively if rather conservatively. Textures were light and the pace snappy, and if some of the detail remained obscured, thankfully there was no more than a gentle nod towards 'authentic' period practice. Last month I heard these same musicians perform Weill's Mahagonny - the polar opposite of Armida - no less convincingly. A truly versatile ensemble.
Below is a pre-production video with interviews and some explicit content:
Go here for some (warning!) explicit production photos, and find more photos over the page........