George Frideric Handel: Saul
Rosemary Joshua (Michal), Emma Bell (Merab), Lawrence Zazzo (David), Jeremy Ovenden (Jonathan, Abner), Michael Slattery (High Priest, Witch of Endor), Gidon Saks (Saul)
René Jacobs (conductor)
RIAS Kammerchor, Concerto K&oum;ln
George Frideric Handel: Alcina
Noemi Nadelmann (Alcina), Annette Markert (Ruggiero), Brigitte Geller (Morgana), Caren van Oijen (Bradamante), Kerem Kurk (Oronte), Johanette Zomer (Oberto), Oliver Zwarg (Melisso)
Paul McCreesh (conductor), David Alden (director)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin
Handel wrote Saul specifically for an English audience still feeling guilt for regicide, and he probably marketed it to the confident, affluent London Jewish community who reliably made up a fair proportion of his audience. But the oratorio has been particular popular in Germany, with stagings far more frequent than on its native soil, most recently Christof Loy's in Munich, and at least as many recordings, including one with Dietrich Fischer-Diskau in the title role and Julia Varady as Michal. The role of Saul could, indeed, be said to be ideal for a past or potential Wotan, a bass baritone thunderer who knows he that must be displaced by a gleaming blonde youth and struggles in vain to stop him. Donald McIntyre was superb in the recording conducted by Charles Mackerras, and Gidon Saks, who sings the role for René Jacobs, sings Hagen next year in the ENO Götterdämmerung and may well be a future Wotan.
Jacobs has chosen to make his upcoming recording with a German choir, the excellent and English-perfect RIAS Kammerchor of Berlin, and his own Concerto Köln. The singers are all native English speakers, and generally ideally cast. Rosemary Joshua, in spite of her distinguished track record of slappers like Semele and Adele in Die Fledermaus, pretty much owns the role of the good girl Michal, and sang with beauty and ease. Emma Bell was suitably fiery as the bad sister Merab, and definitely her father's daughter. Gidon Saks was impressive as Saul, powerful going on blusterous, but always getting over the words and the drama. Lawrence Zazzo was a serene David. The only weak link in the cast was Jeremy Ovenden as Jonathan: he sang the notes in a rather mannered way, and lacked any charisma or even much musical sense. The young American tenor Michael Slattery, although he has a much fuller, less pinpoint voice, was far more glamorous as the High Priest, bar the odd uncertainty about grace notes, and quite amusing as a Welsh Witch of Endor, perhaps modelled on or coached by Robert Tear?
This was a work in progress to some extent. There was no Ghost of Samuel: his substantive words were sung by the men of the choir; and some aspects of the performance seemed to be done to see how they came out. For example, the sinfonias seemed to consist of big gestures rather than the interaction of different lines, and the chorus attacked their entrances wonderfully but then at times sank into mush until the next one. But the recording, due in 2005, should be worth hearing.
There was a forty-minute queue at the Philharmonie for seats for Saul on the night. Perhaps people held out for a last-minute invitation to the seriously glamorous AIDS Gala at the Deutsche Oper on the same night. At any rate, the two-and-a-half thousand seat hall was almost full. The evening before, the Komische Oper was about half full for David Alden's production of Alcina, which was equally well cast and performed and apparently splendidly localized for Berlin. Alden seemed to begin with the idea, entirely plausible and worked out beautifully by David McVicar in his production for the ENO, that the enchantments of Alcina's isle are the illusions of the theatre itself. Where McVicar depicted the machinery of the eighteenth-century stage, Alden starts from a more subjective point of view and makes Alcina Lola-Lola to Ruggiero's Professor Unrat, initially in a production within the production we are seeing in the opera house. Morgana and Oronte start out as ushers in the theatre, ding-donging across the auditorium and showing Bradamante and Melisso to their seats. (Melisso ought really to be Professor Rat, but he has some wobbly moments as well to make the point that sex damages reason.) The isle is a sleazy cabaret, the denouement after Ruggiero's enchantment is broken, apparently by a kind of Vulcan neck pinch after Oberto blows up Melisso's Mesmeric machine, is a surreal ride home on the subway, and the destination, the return to normality and the mainstream of history necessary for Bradamante and Ruggiero to found the house of Este, is a des res on an estate of similar ones. Oronte's change of sides takes the form of his commitment to monogamy with Morgana, with whom he already has a child.
There are plenty of gags, most of them amusing. Without a chorus, Oronte is the only man who suffers transformation into a beast. He intermittently appears in a gorilla suit, recalling Marlene Dietrich again, this time in Blonde Venus. There are also a number of banana jokes, although Josephine Baker doesn't ever quite appear. Annette Markert's baby-dyke Ruggiero was touchingly gender-bending, definitely a forerunner of Octavian, while Caren van Oijen's Bradamante had a tendency to stir things up further by taking her clothes off whenever she lost her temper. Strangely, dressed as a Hausfrau at the end, she looked a bit like a male transvestite.
Stepping in for the advertised Ewa Wolak, van Oijen gave a stellar performance, her rich, intense mezzo agile in the bravura of "Č gelosia". (The opera was sung in an apparently faithful but idiomatic German version by Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze.) Markert was vocally rather colourless, and had limited musical impart. Noemi Nadelmann as Alcina looked sultry and added an entirely torchy edge to her arias of despair. Brigitte Geller as Morgana and Kerem Kurk as Oronte were a well oiled comic double act, between them undergoing most of the symbolic transformations from lady to ape and back. Geller also showed charm and facility in her showpiece arias. Johanette Zomer as Oberto and Oliver Zwarg as Melisso were similarly theatrically complete as types, and Zomer was quite amusing as a naughty schoolboy even if Oberto probably shouldn't be one.
There was a different kind of homecoming at the Schlossparktheater, a converted stable block that has effectively been a country house theatre for 150 years, although it is now in the suburb of Steglitz. The Broadway satire Urinetown, which has been running since September 2001, has made this its first stop abroad instead of London. (Jerry Springer: the Opera is probably not going to New York either.) Urinetown appears at first to be an old-fashioned Brechtian tract, with not-bad pastiche Weill music. It depicts a world where water is desperately short and the rich charge the poor to pee in public toilets while the police ensure that they don't do it anywhere else. But there is a rich man's daughter-honest working boy romance as in Strike up the band, and a failed utopian ending that recalls Der Silbersee or Ragtime and kicks them in the teeth. The environmental point might well be serious, especially as to a British viewer the lavatorial humour is decidedly underdone, but the parody of overwrought and high-minded post-Weill musicals is wicked and at times devastating.
The core joke, the shock of having to pay to pee, perhaps falls short in a country where you do, everywhere except at home (although you don't have to cough up until afterwards, and Berlin's very shiny City WCs are excellent value at 50 cents). But everything else localized nicely in Pinkelstadt, from the comic names to the music-theatre acting style. The strong cast showed very similar theatrical skills to those in Alcina and cast-iron larynxes. They and a sharp band delivered sizzling entertainment with a dark undercurrent of real anxiety about what might happen if we run out of water which is probably missing in the New York version.