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The wig view of history

09/16/2005 -  and 20, 23, 29 September, 1, 4 October 2005
Gerald Barry: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Stephanie Friede (Petra von Kant), Kathryn Harries (Valerie von Kant), Barbara Hannigan (Gabriele von Kant), Susan Bickley (Sidonie von Grasenabb), Rebecca von Lipinski (Karin Thimm), Linda Kitchen (Marlene)

André de Ridder (conductor), Richard Jones (director)

ENO Orchestra

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1970 play and 1972 film Die bittern Tränen der Petra von Kant is undeniably a period piece, a study of the ravages of sexuality and materialism in West Germany in the aftermath of the 1960s. Fassbinder always acknowledged his debt to the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, most obviously in his kitchen-sink rework of Sunset Boulevard, Veronika Voss, but he also looked at Hollywood's German influences. He modeled his muse, Hanna Schygulla, visually on Marlene Dietrich in Der Blaue Engel, all basques and stocking tops, and her characters on Lola Lola, the manipulative object of Professor Unrath's sexual obsession who marries him and humiliates him. In the film of Petra von Kant, Schygulla played Karin, the rootless damaged girl with who the quasi aristocratic fashion designer Petra falls disastrously in love. Fassbinder's films suggest the time past of seedy Weimar cabaret present in the mass-produced ostentation of 1960s West Germany, both as a source of pleasure set in a nostalgic past and as a critique of modern taste. For an audience today, there is also something exhilarating about a world where camp was an integral part of sexual activity rather than, in today's self-censoring hygienic view, a displacement of it, and the viscerally stylish score of Gerald Barry's opera acknowledges this additional perspective fully.

But this is normal for post-Wagnerian opera: Falstaff offers Romantic Shakespeare set to shatteringly modern music; Der Rosenkavalier has Maria Theresa's Vienna as the setting of a belle-epoque tale of adultery to the tunes of Lully and Strauss waltzes; and Lulu, an early twentieth-century critique of nineteenth-century sexual politics is dramatically expressionist and musically modernist, although Berg's genius keeps the drama and music completely integrated. Petra von Kant is fine material for classic opera, not just the stuff of opera queenery that its erotically tormented heroine suggests.

It is a gift for any opera composer, but it is easy to see why Barry chose it. His previous opera, The Triumph of Pleasure and Deceit was a tour de force of an attack on the Counter-Reformation values of its model, Handel's Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, where pleasure lures the soul away from the divine truth. In Barry's Triumph, Deceit (a drag queen) helps lure Beauty to the most infantile of pleasures, against the sanctimonious advice of religion. Deceit is a route to pleasure, which is all there is in the end, as are the twistedly Handelian arias. In Petra von Kant, deceit is again a route to pleasure, but in the modern world, all pleasure seems sado-masochistic. For audiences who find the dramatic intensity of Donizetti, and even of Mozart, emollient, Barry has developed an energetic musical style that is just about tonal but always disruptive and emotional, with the faintest perceptible waft of allusions to other composers: a hint of Strauss brass when Petra asks Karin if she likes art as an attempt to regain her sense of superiority as she falls headlong, a sequence of Bach when Valerie, Petra's mother, talks of her returning Christian faith, as well as Bernard Herrmann-class sinister links and underscorings. Barry sets Fassbinder's play complete, moving it along at a fantastic pace, so that the stratospheric vocal parts give the impression that the whole opera is basically people screaming at each other – as it is to some extent. But it is also a thoroughly Monteverdian setting of the play, as good an integration of music and drama as you could hope to find.

One of the core rewards of Barry's opera is that you get to watch magnificent opera singers playing drag queens performing a Bette Davis movie. But the superb cast don't just deliver theatrical wit. They also find the underlying emotional truth, the self-dramatization that everyone "in love" risks from time to time, and the real pain that prompts it and follows from it. Stephanie Friede was splendid as Petra, a strutting hag in a sequence of terrible wigs and department-store high-fashion frocks – she shows at Milan but designs a range for Karstadt, the German Debenhams. Friede was almost never off stage, and sang tirelessly, making the music sound realistic if not natural. Susan Bickley as her unhappily married and possibly malicious friend Sidonie and Kathryn Harries as her traditionally patrician mother Valerie were both masterful, and Barbara Hannigan as her Saffyish daughter Gabriele did a fine line in finely scored teenage strop. Rebecca von Lipinski as the treacherous Karin had the looks for a late-1980s model, all legs, rather than the more vulnerable 1970s style implied by the clothes Petra has her model, but her singing and acting were superb. The soprano Linda Kitchen was totally silent and totally fascinating as Marlene, Petra's servant and amanuensis (a kind of anti-Despina), and perhaps the real designer of her collections. Marlene embodies the complete submission in a relationship that Sidonie advocates and Petra initially despises, before succumbing to it in her abusive relationship with Karin. When Petra, believing that she has come to terms with her loss of Karin, tries to engage her as an equal at the very end of the opera, the music evokes sheer terror.

Richard Jones' production kept traces of the work's German origins, and had many echoes of his Lulu, appropriately enough. There was much dressing up on stage, and many amusing gestures, including the bottomless cupboard full of gin bottles, but the core of the production was the fine balance between melodramatic posing and real if confused emotion, especially in Petra but always somewhere in all the characters. Ultz' single set of Petra's apartment – like the film, the opera never leaves it -- filled the entire proscenium and extended over the orchestra, with a catwalk built over the front rows of the stalls. It was vaguely retro, again like the sets for Lulu, and oppressive in spite of its size and neutral colours, lurid kitchen and bathroom apart. The orchestra was hidden and "slightly amplified", although the singers didn't seem to be and the balance and co-ordination between the pit and stage was generally fine.

André de Ridder made an impressive ENO debut, getting a fine, coherent but earthy performance from the ENO orchestra. Petra von Kant was allegedly brought into this season at the last minute, in opera-programming terms, because the ENO couldn't afford a full Ring cycle. Perhaps with a bit of engineering of the first-night audience, it has turned out to be an event of the kind desired by Seán Doran and the newish ENO regime. But the quality of the work and performances also has hopeful echoes of the ENO's powerhouse days. We live in hope.

HE Elsom



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