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Komische Oper Berlin

In Review Serse hdl 812
Herheim's production of Handel's Serse at the Komische Oper, with Ivashchenko and Doufexis
© Forster 2012

This season, Komische Oper Berlin waited until May to unveil its annual Baroque production, director Stefan Herheim's take on Handel's Serse, conducted by Konrad Junghänel (seen May 17). In so doing, the company was saving the best for last. 

Herheim, the Norwegian-born director who has left his distinctive stamp on many European stages in a mere few years, presented what was not only the best new production of the season but one that automatically entered the top ranks of the KOB's repertoire. This Serse stands head and shoulders above the house's previous forays into Baroque opera. A coproduction with Deutsche Oper am Rhein, it is also the Komische's second big box-office hit of the season, with repeat sold-out performances, after Barrie Kosky's intimate nightclub staging of Weill and Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins. For the city's smallest and least-appreciated opera house, this is no small feat. 

Herheim's work was last seen in Berlin in a polarizing Lohengrin at the Staatsoper in 2009. Three years later, his take on Serse showed both a keen wit and sharp intelligence that seemed to infect the committed singers and musicians alike. Like his Lohengrin, it contains much humor and even pranksterish behavior, but this was tempered by an ironic elegance that saved the evening from ever devolving into ridiculousness. To borrow a quote from the film This is Spinal Tap, there's a fine line between clever and stupid. Especially in opera, being playful runs the risk of embracing wholesale absurdity. Herheim is a master at this balancing act. With Serse, he embraced the sublime mixture of seria and buffo elements that puzzled the work's original London audience in 1738 and partially accounted for its virtual disappearance for nearly 200 years. 

Herheim's overarching concept was a mise en abyme; the overall aesthetic could be described as storybook commedia dell'arte. Two main sets were visible at various angles on the rotating stage. A versatile theater set (with a descending curtain and proscenium arch) was decked out with hand-painted backdrops for every conceivable occasion; the reverse side of the set depicted a spacious, mostly bare backstage area. The characters transitioned easily between these two worlds, adopting a self-consciously theatrical bearing when on the stage-within-a-stage. Granted, it wasn't a terribly original idea; but Herheim's singers moved so seamlessly between the two levels of the production's reality (which mirrored, to a point, the libretto's mixture of humor and gravitas) that the concept never wore thin. Indeed, Herheim had so many dramatically exciting ideas up his sleeve (as well as a couple of duds, including a disturbing and totally unnecessary rape scene) that the production seemed to be powered on its own joyous energy. I lost track counting Heike Scheele's fanciful sets for country, city and ocean scenes and was continually dazzled by Gesine Völlm's ornately detailed Baroque costumes. Most of all, I was astonished at how nimbly the singers went about a variety of mock-heroics, well-timed slapstick and sporadic interactions with the orchestra. 

If the staging was clever, sophisticated and witty, the performances were what made the evening exhilarating. The KOB drew primarily from its ensemble, selecting some of its finest for the mostly female cast. Stella Doufexis sang the eponymous Persian king with a lush, commanding voice. The Greek–German mezzo-soprano, who sang Carmen for the first time earlier this season, was better suited to a role that capitalized on her voice's plush, noble shadings and showcased her marvelous abilities as a comic actress. From her opening aria, the well-known "Ombra mai fu" — one of several numbers sung in the original Italian in this mainly German-language production — Doufexis was incisive, well balanced and marvelously engaged. Like her costars, she was also able to shift character and mood quickly and convincingly in the course of the evening's three varied acts. 

Playing the king's brother Arsamenes was Karolina Gumos, a powerful Polish mezzo. She was full in range and added attractive darker shadings to her ardent declarations of love for Romilda, whose beauty has also caught the eye of the king. For much of the evening, Brigitte Geller played the role alongside an identically dressed Julia Giebel as Romilda's sister (and romantic rival) Atalanta. Of the two sopranos, Geller, who was recently named by the Berlin Senate as a Kammersängerin, gave the more impressive performance. Giebel, in her smaller role, spent part of the evening pantomiming ways to get rid of Romilda with a variety of weapons (à la Wile E. Coyote). 

Rounding out the female cast was the astonishing Katarina Bradić as Serse's scorned fiancée Amastris. The Serbian mezzo-soprano, on loan from Deutsche Oper Berlin, gave a spellbinding, sexually charged performance that showed off her deep vocal range. In the male department, Dimitry Ivashchenko harnessed his ringing bass for the mock heroics of the Persian general Ariodates. Hagen Matzeit played Arsamenes's servant Elviro with mischief and took on an outrageous falsetto for a hilarious cross-dressing disguise. 

The KOB chorus sang with unity and respect both for the soloists and for the scaled-down orchestra, plus a basso continuo of period instruments. Early-music specialist Konrad Junghänel led the KOB musicians with verve and precision in a propulsive, judiciously ornamented performance. Andreas Homoki, the company's outgoing intendant, could not have picked a better way to end his tenure. spacer


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