Cher Public

The bough friend

The Deutsche Opera an Rhein production of Handel’s Xerxes (which is shared with the Berlin Komische Oper), though I saw it three nights ago, has taken a while to settle down in my brain. That’s not because the Stefan Herheim production is particularly abstruse but rather, on the contrary, because at least at first viewing it seemed relatively straightforward. On the night, I was a little disappointed because I expected something more challenging.

All along, though, I realized that this production is head and shoulders above most everything else one sees in a season: the customary Herheim level of detail was present, and done as close to immaculately as one could hope for in live theater. The director calls his approach to the opera “baroque Muppet Show,” and that is in a sense what we got: there is a sort of ragtag performance of the Handel opera transpiring onstage, but there’s just as much juicy drama (and sight gags) lurking in the wings.

The set represents the full width of a baroque theater, with the stage area, framed by a painted canvas proscenium, at the center, and theater wings on either side. Only a little over a third of the full set can be seen at any given time as it pivots, taking the “stage” out of view and revealing either the stage right or stage left wings, the dressing area, props storage and even the stage door. It’s not unlike Ariadne auf Naxos, in fact, though unlike in the prologue to the Strauss opera, the perspective is constantly shifting.

Adding to the sense of intimacy is the configuration of the orchestra, which raises the floor of the pit the the same level as the first row of audience seats, as would have been done in a real baroque theater. The orchestra and conductor Konrad Junghänel enter by crossing the stage area and descending by visible stairs, and the orchestra is very much in view through the whole show.

The action begins in the wings, with the set already revolving to reveal the “stage.” The famous plane tree is painted canvas against a fluttery scrim depicting a pastoral setting. Xerxes walks on rather casually and not at all heroically: as the “warrior,” Valer Sabadus is all in midnight-blue silk, with a diagonal line of rhinestone buttons across his jacket. A full, wavy wig frames his boyish face, and when he reaches center stage he gives the audience a knowing little smirk. The recitative is delivered directly “out,” rather as a singer might perform at a pop concert, making direct eye contact with the audience in the still-illuminated auditorium.

As he launches into the “Ombra mai fu” proper, Sabadus slowly backs upstage into a different pool of light, but always “performing,” with elegant hand gestures and dreamy glances to the public. As the aria ends, he blissfully embraces the tree trunk, and, not to put too fine a point on it, begins to make love to the tree. (When he is discovered a few moments later, he shyly turns away to conceal a raging boner in his breeches.)

Now this sounds like rather obvious camp, and I agree that this (as always in Herheim) does include a good deal of camp value. But what confused me until now (I hope) was how that camp was deployed; that is, what the camp was supposed to mean. At first I thought it was just free-standing, i.e., purely for entertainment value, but now I think I see a pattern.

Serse (as it is in the original; here it was performed mostly in German, though some of the arias were in Italian)  is different from some of the earlier Handel operas in that, in contrast to works like Rinaldo or Alcina, it contains no overt mythic content. Rather, it’s a melodrama of intrigue, all about members of the ancient nobility conniving and forging letters and disguising themselves. So at first glance the dramatic content of the piece might seem a little shallow for the deep-delving Herheim of Rusalka or Parsifal.

But only at first glance. In this production Herheim seems to conflate the character of Xerxes (the “King of Kings”) with the creator of the role in the opera, Senesino  Caffarelli, who was known for his outrageous indulgences in what we would call today “diva antics.” In other words, star power is, well, power, and the plot of the opera, which revolves around Xerxes’ violent whims, is an allegory of a superstar performing artist.

And so there is nothing of the general in Sabadus’ portrayal: rather, he presents Xerxes as a sexually ambiguous charmer: it’s impossible to tell whether he’s coming on to, say, Romilda or purely making fun of her. Or maybe he’s doing both: all we know is that he’s got the whole cast running around frantically catering to his whims.

What made this click for me was remembering an interview I did with Roberto Alagna some years ago. For the first fifteen minutes or so I was terrifically uncomfortable because he seemed so obviously to be coming on to me. Yes, it’s absurd, because Alagna is straight and even if not why would he have any romantic interest in me? Eventually it dawned on me that, like a lot of stars, he has this sort of superpower of charm that he uses to get audiences to love him, and he just had the gain turned up a little too high for a one-on-one. (Even so, I wrote a gushing interview, so setting the charm on “seduce” worked for him after all.)

So Xerxes is about the enormous power of being a star and the lesser (though still formidable) power of being a performer of any sort. As such, the show was arranged to make the title character simultaneously exasperating and fascinating, the latter mostly through highly-polished comic bits. It was established, for example, that Xerxes (or rather “the singer of Xerxes”) had highly sensitive hearing, so when another singer performed a high note or a brilliant roulade, he would flinch in pain.

During an aria in the second half of the opera, Sabadus strolled down into the orchestra pit, flirted a bit with one of the horn players, then climbed over the rail to sing directly to some women in the first couple of rows of the auditorium. If that sounds like something Frank Sinatra would do, that was pretty much the effect. (It also happened that when Junghänel signaled for the da capo of the aria, Xerxes just flatly said, “Nein,” and walked away. No ritornello, no nothing: I just don’t feel like it. (Of course this surprised got a big hand, to which Sadadus grinned and rolled his eyes adorably.)

I cannot praise Sabadus highly enough for this performance: a whole long and very high Handel role is murder to sing just standing there, but he never once just stood. He was always the puppy dog Xerxes, always flouncing and grinning and winking, intoxicated with the power he held over the audience. (And over the other singers too: in one aria he gave Amastre a toe-curling orgasm by remote control as it were, getting her off with just his voice and few magical gestures.)

Well, to catalog all the gags in a Herheim production would take until the end of time. Near the end of the first half (the piece was one with a single intermission), Xerxes sang the raging aria “Se bramate d’amar,” threatening Romilda who refuses to give in to his advances. This was staged with Atalanta, Romilda’s sister who is in love with Xerxes, running on and off stage delivering various murder weapons to Xerxes, hoping he will off her rival.

But nothing works: the pistol fires into the air and kills a passing bird, sending feathers fluttering to the stage; a cannon knocks down a backdrop and blows a hole in the back of the theater; a cobra perishes when Xerxes waves it around too violently while singing brilliant divisions; and finally a crossbow succeeds only in dislodging a plaster putto from the proscenium.

Again, what makes all this work was absolutely perfect timing: I can’t imagine how long the singers must have had to rehearse for just this one number alone. And this level of gags went on all night, some very subtle (like the one chorister who always had to stand in fifth position) and others as broad as anything that ever bedeviled Wile E. Coyote. And, understand, all this time there is a constant back-and-forth between “opera character” and “backstage character,” similar to but far more subtle and consistent the parallel dramas in Ken Russell’s film of The Boy Friend.

You would think that this approach would wear out it welcome very quickly, but the amazing this is that it doesn’t. Eventually, late in the second half, fatigue starts to set in, but that’s something that is going to happen in most fairly complete performances of Handel operas. Any boredom was redeemed by the evocatively Pirandellian finale of the work.

As Romilda sang her conciliatory aria “Caro voi siete all’alma,” the set revolved again, but this time the leading singers in their fanciful baroque costumes slowly were carried off the stage. Meanwhile into the “backstage” area came the chorus, now dressed in modern street clothes, as if to reclaim the theater space from these invaders from the past. (“Ritorna a noi la calma,” they sang, Give us back our peace.) The drama continued into the curtain call: first the chorus bowed, then scattered, leaving the singers/characters of the opera in a line upstage. By now the houselights were up, and these oddly-dressed creatures stared in confusion and disbelief: were you out there all that time, watching us?

That, I think, is the key to this production: yes, there is enormous power, the power of a Xerxes, even, in being a certain type of star performer. That power is not inherent to the performer, but rather is on loan from the audience. We, the people out there in the dark (or the light) are the real rulers, the kings of kings in fact.

And what a pleasure it is to note that this performance was every bit as strong musically as it was dramatically. Maestro Junghänel’s approach to the score is radiantly flexible; even the most formal pieces sound improvised on the spot. As with the Platée in Stuttgart, there was no sense of “us” orchestra and “them” singers: everyone made the show together. (That included the indefatigable stagehands,who got their own curtain call.)

I am in love with Valer Sabadus, and not just because he cranked the charm up to 11 à la Alagna. The voice is a true soprano, light and delicate, with a slightly veiled quality and a shimmering, sweet vibrato. It is not at all a big sound; even in this small theater one had to sit forward for the voice, but it was more than worth the effort. There is something about this voice you want to caress, which of course makes Xerxes’ nonstop seductiveness make all the more sense.

A more powerful but slightly more generic countertenor issued from the Arsamene, Terry Wey, who had such easy flexibility and a brilliant top he would likely steal this show from any lesser Xerxes than Mr. Sabado. Even more voluptuous in sound was the bass Hagen Matzeit, who sang Elviro’s “drag” flower song in a plummy contralto. Torben Jürgens rollicked through Ariodate’s fast coloratura so well you almost resented the laughs at Xerxes’ pained expressions.

The women’s voices were a bit more utilitarian. Heidi Elisabeth Meier was at her poised best in Romilda’s more plaintive numbers, though she wielded bright coloratura when needed. Anke Krabbe sang Atalanta boldly but with a hard tone, though that would perhaps be preferable to Laura Nykänen‘s wispy mezzo which tended to disappear when Amastre’s lines sank low.

This was a different, sunnier Herheim than what I had seen before, and (on reflection) I rather like it. This production could definitely play in the United States, though presumably here the singing would revert to the original Italian instead of the macaronic mix of that language and German used in this edition.

BÜHNE Heike Scheele
KOSTÜME Gesine Völlm
LICHT Franck Evin
CHORLEITUNG Christoph Kurig
DRAMATURGIE Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach

SERSE Valer Sabadus
AMASTRE Laura Nykänen
ARIODATE Torben Jürgens
ROMILDA Heidi Elisabeth Meier
ATALANTA Anke Krabbe
ELVIRO Hagen Matzeit

CHOR Chor der Deutschen Oper am Rhein
ORCHESTER Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik

Photos: Hans Jörg Michel

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Will you be interviewing Herheim? So great that you’re in Germany and sharing all of your interesting reviews of the present scene. The youtube time machine now has a fine view of the Ponnelle production of Rossini’s BARBIERE with La Scala in Japan. Sonja Frisel always kept the Ponnelle production fresh for him there.

    • semira mide

      Frisel also brought Ponnelle’s production of “L’Occasione Fa Il Ladro” to the Rossini Opera Festival a couple of years ago -- it sparkled.

  • Lohengrin

    If I remember correctly the same Xerxes directed by Herheim was in Graz, Austria, and my frieds liked the production very much.

  • phoenix

    J.A. Hasse. Didone Abbandonata.
    Theresa Holzhauser mezzo
    Magdalena Hinterdobler soprano
    Valer Barna Sabadus countertenor
    Maria Celeng soprano
    Flavio Ferri Benedetti countertenor
    Michael Hofstetter conductor.
    Paris, Royal Opera of Versailles, 2012

    • laddie

      Truly a beautiful voice:

    • Bill

      Maria Celeng was the Fiordiligi in the new
      production of Cosi in Budapest last October and was magnificent. I also saw her a few years back singing
      in a Purcell Opera, The voice was very pure and
      no difficulty with the hurdles of Fiordiligi’s two
      difficult arias. She had a recent connection with the BSO in Munich but I think in smaller roles.

  • Patrick Mack

    Fascinating. I would love to see this.

  • Hippolyte

    A short news story (in German) with clips of the production and interviews with Sabadus from 2 years ago:

    The goatee will have to go for his next role, Marzia (a girl) in Vinci’s Catone in Utica soon in Wiesbaden and Versailles.

  • laddie

    Another marvelous review.

    “This production could definitely play in the United States, though presumably here the singing would revert to the original Italian instead of the macaronic mix of that language and German used in this edition.”

    Santa Fe, are you listening?

  • Lee B. Ahmo

    I love this piece, your observations about Alagna’s interview juice, and I also adore Sabadus. So glad to hear there’s a Herheim production I might “get.” Senesino, though, had left England by 1736. Serse was created by Caffarelli who, unlike the contributor here by that name (as far as I can tell), was quite capricious.

  • Perles75

    The use of German is unfortunate, but that’s the custom of the Komische Oper.

    A pedantic remark, Serse was not sung by Senesino (who was way too old in 1738 when the opera was first performed) but by another of his pairs, not less used to capricious behavior than Senesino, the famous Caffarelli.

    A less pedantic request, does a video of the opera exist somewhere in the net? (that’s a request which is valid also for the Platée of yesterday!)

    • L’aria dicea “Caffarelli”,
      ma io dico “Senesino.”

      • Lee B. Ahmo

    • Krunoslav

      N.B.: By 1738, both Senesino and his peer Caffarelli had long since lost their pairs…

    • Fluffy-net

      I wouldn’t say the use of German in Berlin (or Duesseldorf)is “unfortunate” for the obvious reason. We need to remember that for most of its history opera was performed in the language of the audience because people wanted to understand. Yes, there were exceptions in Anglo-Saxon countries and the Theatre italien in Paris (someone can check what they did in Buenos Aires in the 19th century), but local language was the rule. True, Le crepuscule des dieux gives me the giggles, but there is a German translation of Don Giovanni that is, in my opinion, as good as or better than Da Ponte.
      Only as travel improved and international casts cruised around the world did the original language stick.

      • phoenix

        Teatro Colón: In 19th century most operas were performed in Italian (a very large portion of the population were Italian immigrants) -- the exceptions being 1) if a cast and conductor (or an entire troupe on tour) were imported from France, Germany, Austria, etc.; 2) a zarzuela performance; or 3) if a famous non-Italian singer was engaged by the Colón -- infrequently the entire performance was sung by the company in the original language to honor the singer -- but more often the singer was given the choice of singing either in their native language or in the versión italiana. Most of the conductors at the Colón in the 19th & early 20th century were Italian.
        -- During the first half of the 20th century another wave of immigrants arrived, this time from German lands. Previously during the 19th century, Wagner performances were sung in Italian with cuts -- for example, in Götterdämmerung the Waltraute scene of Act 1 was cut. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that Wagner’s operas were performed with original German text: Lohengrin (1923), Tannhäuser (1926), Meistersinger (1926); the first Ring cycle in original German was given in 1922 by the visiting Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Felix Weingartner -- but in the decade following, a few Wagner performances at Colón reverted to the old custom of alemán traducir en italiano: (Lohengrin (1927 & 1929) & Götterdämmerung (1930).

        • Fluffy-net

          Thank you. I always forget how much opera there was in Argentina.

        • Buster

          Interesting, Phoenix. Both the Fritz Busch Flying Dutchman and Parsifal from the Colon are in German, except for the chorus, which sings in Italian. Essential recordings, nevertheless, Marjorie Lawrence is splendid in both of them.

        • phoenix

          The Colón chorus still sang Wagner in Italian when I was a teenager in the 1960’s -- I’m not sure when the practice stopped, probably sometime during the 1970’s.
          -- Fritz Busch conducted there during the Golden Age of the Colón (between the two world wars) -- and afterward. In addition to his famous interpretations of Fidelio & the Mozart operas, during the 4-year period from 1933 to 1936 Busch conducted: Tristan und Isolde with Lauritz Melchoir, Anny Konetzni & Alexander Kipnis; Lohengrin with René Maison, Tiana Lemnitz (Elsa) & Marjorie Lawrence (Ortrud); Rheingold with Prohaska, Karin Branzell, Max Lorenz & Maison; Walküre with Margarete Teschemacher, Lorenz / Maison, Kipnis & Prohaska; Siegfried & Götterdämmerung with Lorenz & Kipnis; Tannhäuser with Lorenz, Prohaska & Maison; Fliegende Holländer with Teschemacher / Marjorie Lawrence, Kipnis; Parsifal with Maison, Marjorie Lawrence, Martial Singher & Kipnis.
          -- Busch’s Brünnhildes during that 4 year period were 1) Hungarian Ella De Nemethy (1895-1961) who made her debut in 1919 as Dalila at the National Opera in Budapest and later went on to sing Venus, Ortrud, Brünnhilde, Isolde, Kundry. She sang in Berlin and at La Scala. There is a decent sounding old Hungaratron recording of her in excepts as Ortrud:
          2) Wiener geboren Anny Helm-Sbisá (1903-1993). She moved to Italy in 1933 and married Giuseppe Sbisà, director of the Trieste Opera. The only recording that I know of with Helm-Sbisá is her 1928 Brangäne from Bayreuth conducted by Elmendorff, which is a shame because she recorded poorly in that performance. She didn’t come into her prime until 1934 when she sang Brünnhilde at Teatro Comunale di Firenze & La Scala di Milano -- later on that season she sang her first complete Ring cycle Brünnhilde at Teatro San Carlo di Napoli.
          -- In 1934 Busch also conducted the Colón premieres of Smetana’s Verkaufte Braut (with Teschemacher, Branzell & Kipnis), Strauss’ Arabella (again with Teschemacher & Kipnis); and later on, the premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1942 (Rose Bampton as Ariadne)
          -- Buster, if you get a chance, do go to Düsseldorf. I felt very comfortable in that house. The building is surrounded by a garden-like setting, beautiful.

      • Perles75

        I completely understand the historical reasons, but nowadays performing operas not in the original language is an anachronism.
        It’s always better to perform operas as they were written, with the text the composer put into music.

        • Buster

          Agreed -- translations also have the disadvantage they age very fast. It is certainly amusing to hear John Brownlee mentioning how gay he is al the time, and the queer moments he has, but otherwise having to listen to Novotna and Pinza sing their horrible lines (in very poor English) spoils the Bruno Walter Magic Flute completely for me.

          And thanks for the heads up on the Düsseldorf opera, Phoenix. The Ballo is in Duisburg, which is a smaller house than Düsseldorf, apparently.

        • Krunoslav

          “It’s always better to perform operas as they were written, with the text the composer put into music.”

          I guess I am allergic to all categorical statements (even “British is best!’)

          Doesn’t it depend on the work and the circumstances of performance?

          If a theater is doing the first local staging of a text-driven piece like VEC MAKROPULOS or NOS ( Shostakovich), for example, I think translation is a good idea.

          Plus, what about the case of DIALOGUES DES CARMELITES, where Poulenc explicitly stated that he wanted it performed in the vernacular language, to maximize understanding? I enjoy that both in French and in the very good Machlis translation ( and in Italian as spoken by the WP cast)

          • Fluffy-net

            Yes, I think circumstances matter. A theater like the Komische Oper draws the cast from a resident ensemble. It strikes me as appropriate to have them perform in German and to thereby gain eye-to-eye communication with the audience. Especially if there is a good translation.

            Anyone see the Seattle Ring in Andrew Porter’s translation?

            The fact that there are bad translation does not mean that there should be no translations. And if we banned opera with outmoded language there would be little opera left.

          • luvtennis


            Truth is a choice was made back when it was “decided” that opera in the vernacular language was second best and not ideal. That choice (it seems to me) decided once and for all -- the primacy of the music over all other aspects of opera. Let’s face it. Those who don’t speak Italian, German or French cannot be expected to relate to the current rep in the same way that people fluent or at least conversant in those language can and do.

            • pavel

              I don’t think it had anything to do with “the primacy of the music over all other aspects of opera.” I think the internationalization of opera means that top-tier singers sing the same roles all over the globe, and they’re not going to want to learn a role in several languages. Would Jonas Kaufmann, for example, be willing to learn Lohengrin in Spanish for one production in Buenos Aires?

          • phoenix

            Circumstances, in some instances -- tradition, in others. ENO, along with Komische Oper, Chautauqua Opera (NYS), still follow their old mandate of performing in the vernacular.
            -- At Teatro Colón they used to do Boris, Khovanschina, Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella, etc. in Italian, but Dialouges des Carmelites premiered in 1965 in French, despite Poulenc’s stated preferences. Going back to my 1st season at SFO (1963) Zauberflöte, Contes d’Hoffman, Pikovaya Dama, Dialogues des Carmelites and even Don Pasquale were all done in English. I remember NYCO performing Capriccio, Coq d’Or, Meistersinger & the prologue of Ariadne auf Naxos in English.
            -- Operas translated into languages other than English sounded fine to me. Operas sung in American English also sounded fine to me, but in the ENO broadcasts I got squirmy -- the singers so carefully fine-tuned their diction (much more so than in USA performances), singing in such obviously UK-accented English that I was a bit put-off -- on the other hand, the USA performances in English provided much freer intonation & delivery that to my ears sounded closer to the original text language.
            -- When I went to Seattle Opera in the 1970’s, they used to give (annually during summer) one Ring cycle in German and another in English -- usually with different casts. I only saw the German performances, but I did see Siegfried sung in English at Chautauqua Opera.

  • Buster

    Thanks for sharing your diary with us. Terrific reviews, which in addition have taught me more about you than any of your previous stuff. Keep them coming.

  • liza

    I’m absolutely mad about baroque until baroque opera then I’m reaching for the razor blade. Your fascinating review of this droll production made me think, ‘oh yeah, now I get it’. Thanks.

  • Buster

    Their new season is out:

    I have never been to an opera there -- next month for the first time: a Ballo with Barbara Haveman.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    I watched the overture thru the Malatesta Aria of the video of Don Pasquale from Vienna. If this is a new production, it is some of the most irritating directorial garbage. Such a magnificent orchestra playing wonderfully in the pit, while the stage if filled with totally inappropriate goings on in an alienating setting depicting some sort of semi-sleazy sex bar. The Malatesta looked like Despina disguised as the doctor and he sang with such a lack of polish. Maybe it got better, but I wanted no part of it after the sample of the opening dreck. Worst of all, that production will last for years in their repetory.

  • A little correction: Atalanta is in love with Arsamene, her sister’s Romilda lover, that’s why she urges her to give in to Xerxes (there is a dialogue between them revealing her purpose, which leads to Romilda’s aria “Se l’ idol mio”). I sang the part last summer, and must admit our beloved G.F. saved his best coloraturas for Arsamene, Amastre, and of course Serse. Anyway, glad you are enjoying your european tour, and we are enjoying your reviews!

  • Camille

    This was actually quite an interesting piece to read, even for the Regie-Retarded as am I, and was as well quite instructive to view the video which Hippolyte posted of the production, for the “Frank Sinatra moment” was featured as a part of the example, for one, just as Cieca describes. I was quite taken with and struck by the grounded and non-arrogant manner in which Der Bough Friend addressed the interview(er). A serious and thoughtful artist.

    Good for Old La Cieca to get out and shake a leg!!—far from the withering heights of Jeremy Sams’s Widder mit Schlag und alles. ‘Twill be a brand new, bright and cheery Cieca who returns to Lincoln Center for the summer stage!

  • I finally read this review and loved every word. I want to spend my time going to operas with La Cieca and having her explain the stagings to me during intermission. LOL