Not every good idea is really a good idea
by Susanne Krekel
Krysztof Warlikovski stages Purcell and Schönberg at the Munich Staatsoper
Munich, 10 February, 2023 Even if it looks as if it had been a good idea to sell two operas for the price of one, or rather four for the price of two, and if the public is finally back in flocks and the opera is sold out, the special offer probably has not been thought out in this way. Four operas for the price of two, because what we hear is in no way connected to what we see. Transposing a work into another epoch, stripping a story of its historical context to show its timeless psychological contents, a good idea if there is a link of some sort between the music and the staging, be it by stage movements that are based on the musical rhythm, be it by some allusion to the work’s original context, or any other trick. Tonight, however, we feel that there are two different stories unfolding, one on stage and another in the orchestra pit. On stage, we see a kind of hut, like an open freight container, furnished in the style of the 60s, in a forest represented by a background video projection. Another video projection, above the hut, informs us that this is „The Palace”. Interesting. In the palace, Dido expresses her anguish, she is in love with Aeneas; her confidante and the people encourage her, Aeneas loves her too. Ausrine Stundyte incarnates Dido, and later A Woman in Schönberg’s Erwartung, and she is fantastic. A strong and ample voice, supple and creamy, impeccable acting, it’s her and Andrew Manze in the pit who carry the show, a prowess! An American car, 60s style, rolls onto the stage and here is Aeneas, light trousers, beige checked jacket, long hair - a bourgeois, a rebel, both?
Günter Papendell, who plays this role, possesses a deep big voice, flexible and multicoloured, and we regret Aeneas’ having not more to say. He manifests his love for Dido and a happy end could take place right here and now, but alas, in a corner of the stage a motley bunch of people are assembling, the gentle scripture nous informs that this is a cave. The motley crowd are sorceresses and ghosts, and they conspire to separate Dido and Aeneas. The music here deals with hate and destruction, and we see people having a ball. It’s this constant dissonance that creates an irritation in our minds like the sound of nails scratching on a chalkboard. A mean-spirited spirit - the countertenor Key’mon W. Murrah, very good also - offers to appear to Aeneas in the shape of Mercury to remind him of his original mission, which is to find and colonise Italy after the fall of Troy, and thus make him leave Dido. Meanwhile Belinda dances before Aeneas - the gentle scripture informs us that we see „Dido’s women” who entertain their guest who has come back from a hunt (ah, yes, right, we have seen a few guns around somewhere…). A gracious dancer, a lovely singer, Victoria Randem as Belinda is one of the joys of this show. A snowstorm forces everyone inside, „Mercury” collars Aeneas who surrenders at once to the divine will. The sailors are preparing the ships, oh, no, sorry, the car, for their departure and Aeneas comes to Dido to say goodbye. She doesn’t believe his words of regret and accuses him of being false. So, he changes his mind and offers to disobey the god’s command and stay with her, but she sends him away. And kills herself. For this scene at least, Warlikovski has found a visual language that matches the poignant music: while Dido is standing up, a dagger in her hand, singing her famous lament, Belinda slowly and tenderly wraps her in a sleeping bag, and slowly she lies down. Ausrine Stundyte interprets this lament with so much poetry and such poignant pianissimi that we are almost reconciled with the show. Alas, not for long.
It might have been a good idea to join Purcell to Schönberg, musically they are far apart but not incompatible. A musical bridge, an interlude taken from the centuries that separate the two periods, might have made the transition easier. Instead we are now treated to a quarter of an hour of booming industrial sounds, accompanied by the screams of an electric guitar, interlude composed for the occasion by Paweł Mykietyn, and a group of very good dancers. After the first moment of delighted surprise about a fantastic hip-hop number, the stage show becomes pretty boring, the choreography seems rather random. It does its job however of diverting the public from the change in the set. When the orchestra tune up again, we discover that Dido is alive again, and the hut has been separated in two parts. In one of them, we see Dido with Aeneas and Belinda who are now just extras and will be sitting like sleepers throughout the following piece. Erwartung is a psychodrama, written by Marie Pappenheim, a monologue: a woman is erring through the forest, searching for or en route to see her lover. She will live through moments of utter terror, remember moments of tenderness, express her longing, her love, her fear… Ausrine Stundyte is excellent again, she follows the difficult score without hesitation, incarnating every moment this woman and her intense emotions. Finally, she will come upon a body, her dead lover as chance would have it. Schönberg’s music follows her every movement and emotion, it is intensely dramatic, and we also follow the woman, sharing her anguish and her terror. It is a pity that she must remain in her hut whilst the forest is a video projection in the background, with a blurry stag walking through the image from time to time. A pity as well that she must use poor Papendell as a prop when she finds her dead lover - why all this? We would have understood without this silly charade. To illustrate even more clearly the contents of the monodrama, in the other part of the hut, a man is preparing himself and his home for a candlelight-dinner. At the end, the woman will come to him, they sit down at the table, finally united - and collapse together.
Applause for the fabulous musicians, and we leave the hall, irritated and frustrated. Certainly, art is allowed and even obliged to push the limits of our comfort zones, certainly irritation should lead to reflexion, for our part, reflexion leads to more irritation: so, we wanted to give up the stage to two women, only protagonists of their pieces, affected by extreme emotions - a laudable idea at first sight. A closer look however reveals that these emotions have for only source and center a man. So, a woman who is frustrated in love has no other solution than death? - Lasciatemi un po’ ridere!