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Vocalconsort Berlin, Freiburger Barockconsort | Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

FOR ITS FINAL production of the 2014-15 season, the Berlin Staatsoper chose to end at the beginning, with Monteverdi’s Orfeo, in a production by Berlin’s most celebrated choreographer, Sasha Waltz (seen July 1). After two wild Orfeos in Berlin in recent memory—Barrie Kosky’s fabulously overstuffed production at the Komische Oper and an experimental take starring the Canadian performance artist Peaches at the HAU theater—Waltz’s through-danced staging seemed refreshingly tame.  

The production marked a decade of Waltz’s work in opera, which began here in 2004 with a now-legendary production of Dido and Aeneas that ranks among the Staastoper’s most beloved stagings. That blockbuster production was more compelling for its dazzling underwater ballet and haunting portrayal of Dido’s immolation than for the interpolated texts and non-musical scenes that doubled the work’s running time. More recently, Waltz furnished the company’s new Tannhäuser, unveiled during last year’s Easter Festival Days and revived this season: a production that seemed little more than a presentation case for extraordinary musicianship. 

In purely theatrical terms, this Orfeo, a coproduction with the Dutch National Opera, where it was staged earlier this season, was a more complete success that those two earlier outings. Unlike Dido, Waltz did not deviate from the original score and libretto. Unlike Tannhäuser, the choreographer—who is often seen as a successor to Pina Bausch with her fresh and stylish approach to “dance theater”—found a way to bring the singers and dancers together in perfect harmony. 

The orchestra was placed onstage, at either side of central wooden platform divided by a frame-like structure that effectively separated the space into interior and exterior zones. By grouping the musicians, singers and dancers together, Waltz ensured that no single element was ever autonomous. The open degree of exchange between these groups brought to mind Achim Freyer’s staging of Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo here three seasons ago, an utterly different production that fused movement and music, vocal and instrumental, in a similarly organic whole. Waltz kept things characteristically uncluttered and sleek, although certain touches—the expressive lighting and the profusion of flowers, branches and even vegetables—brought to mind Robert Carsen and his dazzling take on Rameau’s Les Boréades. Tapio Snellman’s video worked best at its most abstract and when it didn’t draw too much attention to itself. Typical for Waltz, the dancing was more ritualistic than virtuosic. The singers banded with the members of Waltz’s corps (aptly named Sasha Waltz & Guests) for tightly choreographed dance sequences and patterns that seemed organic and flowing despite being highly controlled. 

Some of the most impressive moves came from George Nigl, the evening’s Orfeo. A former soloist at the Vienna Boy’s Choir, the light baritone sang clearly and fluidly in all registers, and made for a charming and physically energetic Orpheus. However, his smooth voice was often rather colorless. His “Possente spirito,” ornamented by fine coloratura, got off to a slow start, but he managed to work himself up into a state of passion that should have been a more regular feature of his performance.  

The ravishing soprano Anna Lucia Richter sang Euridice (plus the bit role of La Musica) with light and tender tones. Her devotional affect gelled well with the production’s aesthetic. Never less than captivating, Richter’s supple and radiant voice made one wish that Monteverdi had written a larger role for Euridice. Swedish mezzo Charlotte Hellekant lent dark, tremulous tones to La Messaggiera and La Speranza and brought Orfeo the news of Euridice’s death—in this production, she seemed to be abducted and killed during the wedding festivities—with a quaking urgency that seemed a violent intrusion and rupture after the gilded vocal timbres of both Nigl and Richter.  

In the underworld, Douglas Williams was a bellowing Caronte, although his voice sounded unnaturally enhanced when he sang from the back of the stage (the Schiller Theater is known for inexplicable acoustical phenomena). In act four, Konstantin Wolff’s Plutone and Luciana Mancini’s Prosterina supplemented their finely-balanced duet with an impressively lithe pas de deux.

  Although part of the official Staatsoper season, this Orfeo was to all intents and purposes, a non-Staatsoper event. None of the forces involved, except the stagehands perhaps, belonged to the company. The Vocalconsort Berlin, a decade-old choir that is quickly becoming an indispensable part of the city’s musical scene, sang with robust freshness and surefooted commitment. The careful musicianship of the Freiburger Barockconsort, a renowned period instrument ensemble, animated the house’s second Baroque outing of the season, after Telemann’s Emma und Eginhard, although Torsten Johann, a fastidious maestro, often opted for dragging tempi. Aside from this, the wild percussion had a tendency to drown out the other instruments, especially during the dances. In the concluding moresca, most of the orchestra joined in the dance, with predictably awkward musical results. 

The Berlin Staatskapelle, for its part, had played its last concert of the season on the previous evening: a brilliant and overwhelming account of Mahler’s Third conducted by Zubin Mehta. —A.J. Goldmann

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