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Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo

Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

In Review Berlin Rappresentatione hdl 912
Freyer staging of Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo at Berlin’s Staatsoper
© Hermann and Clärchen Baus 2012

In early June, early-music specialist René Jacobs teamed up with Achim Freyer for a new production of Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s little-seen Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo (seen June 8). First performed in Rome in 1600, Rappresentatione has controversially been described as both the first oratorio and the first opera. While both historical claims have been disputed, Cavalieri did much to synthesize music and drama. This is seen in Rappresentatione’s alternation of rhythmically varied arias, arioso recitatives, choruses, dances and — in the composer’s words — “changing instruments to suit the feeling of the text.”

Achim Freyer’s work was last seen at the Staatsoper in 2008, in his visually striking but painfully inert take on Eugene Onegin. Rappresentatione’sambivalent position between oratorio and opera made a better fit for Freyer’s sensibilities than Tchaikovsky’s plot-driven melodrama. As with his dazzling 2001 production of Verdi’s Requiem for Deutsche Oper Berlin, here the format of Rappresentatione provided a solid aesthetic backbone for Freyer’s whims. 

The most exciting and unexpected element was the configuration of the orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin: the musicians lined the periphery of the stage, sharing space with the choir in an elongated horseshoe formation. The musicians at the back played from behind a dark, translucent curtain, and there was a far-off, ghostly quality to their playing, which proved especially effective for the musical echoes with which Cavalieri occasionally adorns his arias. The stage was extended over the covered orchestra pit and Jacobs looked a touch cramped as he conducted from what looked a lot like a prompter’s box. 

Aside from the unusual musical positioning, there was a familiar Freyer carnivalesque atmosphere, augmented with a touch of Victorian gothic gloom. Circus lighting and a hand-scribbled hopscotch court shared the stage with rolling skulls, glow-in-the-dark skeletons and a marionette of the devil. Most everyone, apart from the soloists, was dressed in a black trench coat, white gloves and either a fedora or a top hat. Members of the acrobatic Freyer Ensemble cavorted, often in outlandish costumes, although the antics were tamer than what I’ve previously seen. 

Standouts among the principal cast included the precise and controlled tenor of Mark Milhofer, the British singer who represented both Intelletto (Intellect) and Piacere (Pleasure) with remarkably sustained and legato phrasings. It was announced that baritone Gyula Orendt had a slight cold; it hardly seemed to affect his commanding and occasionally fierce performance as Tempo (Time) and Consiglio (Council). Johannes Weisser, a Norwegian baritone, breathed nobility and suffering into Corpo (Body). Bass-baritone Marcos Fink, a booming Mondo (World), made a dramatic entrance, as a disco ball rolled downstage. And as Anima (Soul), mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis more than held her own against all the powerful male voices. The work’s spoken prologue was translated to German and enthusiastically declaimed (several times in the course of the evening) by Thoma Wutz and Raphael Zinser, two boy soloists of the Staats- und Domchor Berlin. 

The period instrumentalists, playing from the stage and mingled in with the choir and members of the Freyer Ensemble, of necessity became part of the theatrical performance. They played with refreshing verve, combining brilliant technique and ornamentation with surprising freedom. Jacobs, conducting with a light yet occasionally stern touch, gave the musicians permission to let their hair down a little. This harmonized with both the crisp vocal performances and the carnival atmosphere of Freyer’s production. The whole thing clocked in at ninety minutes, which was just the right length for a slightly eccentric production of this Renaissance moral allegory. spacer 


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