Dramatic Urgency and Angst in Independent Opera’s Staging of Voseček’s Biedermann and the Arsonists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Šimon Voseček, Biedermann and the Arsonists: Independent Opera soloists and the Britten Sinfonia / Timothy Redmond (conductor). Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London, 17.11.2015. (JPr)

Mark Le Brocq, Leigh Melrose, Raphaela Papadakis, Alinka Kozari_(c) Robb...
Mark Le Brocq, Leigh Melrose, Raphaela Papadakis, Alinka Kozári in Independent Opera’s Biedermann and the Arsonists
(c) Robbie Jack

Voseček, Biedermann and the Arsonists


Biedermann: Mark Le Brocq
Babette: Alinka Kozári
Schmitz: Leigh Melrose
Eisenring: Matthew Hargreaves
Anna: Raphaela Papadakis
Firemen: Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford, Bradley Travis
Policeman: Laurence North


Director: Max Hoehn
Designer: Jemima Robinson
Lighting Designer: Giuseppe di Iorio
Video Designer: Daniel Denton

Britten Sinfonia
Conductor: Timothy Redmond

Independent Opera suggest their ‘raison d’être’ at Sadler’s Wells ‘is the encouragement of operatic talent, through mentoring and financial support. Since 2005 many young artists have developed their skills under Independent Opera’s guiding hand, gaining vital experience as they make the leap from the student world to the professional stage.’ It is marking its 10th year with the UK première of Šimon Voseček’s Biedermann and the Arsonists. This was first put on in Vienna in 2013 and is ‘based on the classic absurdist play by Swiss dramatist and novelist Max Frisch, in a new translation by David Pountney.’ The original play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (known here as The Fire Raisers) was first a radio play in 1953, staged in Zurich in 1958 and later put on at London’s Royal Court in 1961 and 2007. So the libretto was derived from a tried and tested dramatic work and it is the way many operas were composed in the past. Probably because of this it was so much better than The Royal Opera’s recent Morgen und Abend which has been given five performances (too many) when Biedermann and the Arsonists has got only three (much too few).

The great thing about this is that the story of this comic opera – for that is what it is despite the subject matter – with so many mentions of ‘humanity’ made me reflect on man’s inhumanity to man: it also allows for it to resonate – and therefore be reinvented – for successive generations. The story of Biedermann and the Arsonists can be a metaphor (or perhaps more correctly a pataphor) for the rise of the Nazis and fascism and it has also been suggested it reflects how the communists came to power in post-war Czechoslovakia. Michael Billington writes about Max Frisch’s play in his essay in the programme that by the early twenty-first century ‘To some, it was a play about our willingness to allow corporate greed and individual selfishness to destroy the planetary ecosystem.’ Whatever it may be about he also writes how it concerns ‘a man welcoming agents of destruction into his home’ an issue all-too-real to everyone in 2015!

Everything we see takes place in the home Gottlieb Biedermann and revolves around two men, Schmitz and Eisenring, who wheedle their way into his home and move into his attic.  Biedermann is suspicious of the men and doesn’t want to believe he has let arsonists – in a city that has seen a spate of arson attacks – into his precious home. His own anxieties, self-delusion and egotism causes him to give a hand to arsonists/Nazis with the hope of procuring his own safety, but ironically at the end Biedermann is complicit in his own downfall. He has allowed Schmitz to stay because – as a former wrestler in a circus that burned down! – he physically fears this tattooed hulk of a man. Also were he to deny allowing him to sleep in the attic, Schmitz would probably burn the house down anyway. So Schmitz is able to manipulate both Biedermann and his wife, Babette, by playing on their need to appear kind and compassionate. The beauty (or maybe it is a problem?) of the structure of the libretto (in David Pountney’s up-to-date translation) is its ambiguity over who should get the audience’s sympathy. Biedermann – the owner of a hair tonic business – is a thoroughly nasty piece of work and sacks his business partner, Herr Knechtling, because he wants a share of the profits and suggests he stick his head in a gas oven … which is what he subsequently does. So much for Biedermann’s ‘humanity’!

Everything escalates to the point where Biedermann invites the arsonists to dinner so he can feel good about making sure they are well fed with Goose and red cabbage. Biedermann has all the middle-class trappings removed from the dining room by their harassed servant Anna — all the silver (candelabra, wine bucket, cutlery rests), damask napkins and tablecloth — in order not to appear too grand. However, Schmitz and Eisenring, make out they had been expecting all these accoutrements and the embarrassed Biedermann makes Anna bring it all back. (Eisenring is a former waiter in a hotel which – you’ve guessed it – also burnt down.) There is no hope for Biedermann as he has turned a blind eye to the barrels of gasoline that are now being stored in the attic and hastens his own end by helping the arsonists measure out the fuse that is going to be used to set fire to his house. After Schmitz recounts his time at the opera (which also unsurprisingly burnt down) and wonderfully conjuring up the Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Biedermann is on the verge of a nervous breakdown by the time he hands over the matches with which to start the final conflagration.  (Sadly this is a reminder how many Jews were complicit in their own genocide – since in fear for their own lives and the safety of their loved ones – they often acceded to the instructions of the Nazis, only to die anyway!) And that is it for this compelling morality tale – apart from a Fireman Sam-lookalike and a couple of similarly attired colleagues who the synopsis tells us perform ‘the role of a Greek Chorus on the side of the stage, warning of the disaster to come should a citizen ignore any signs of danger.’

Musically, Šimon Voseček’s spare, insistent and often caustic instrumentation creates dramatic urgency and angst, combined with a doom-laden brooding menace. All he uses is three clarinets (two doubling bass clarinet); three trombones, one tuba; two percussionists; one violin and three cellos and it was very well played by the Britten Sinfonia under Timothy Redmond – all getting into the spirit of the piece by having their faces smeared with soot. Voseček emphasises the absurdity and heightened tension of the climactic dinner scene by vocal writing which altered from its previous more naturalistic, melodic, atonal style to single syllable utterances. The singing was wonderful throughout although the voices resonated more than a little in the intimate Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells. Marc Le Brocq perfectly epitomised the cold-hearted, aspirant middle-class Biedermann, appearing as the love-child of John Cleese and Iain Duncan Smith and was in robust voice but was increasing sorely tested by having to sing higher and higher as his character’s anxiety levels rose. Alinka Kozári was excellent as Babette and sang a superb ‘Goose Aria’ about her love for her husband. Raphaela Papadakis was a perfect comic foil as the increasingly exasperated housekeeper, Anna, and sang beautifully. Leigh Melrose (in a well-muscled ‘fat suit’) and Matthew Hargreaves relished their roles as Schmitz and Eisenring, the arsonists; these are tricky – somewhat cartoonish – roles to get right and their performances, both vocally and dramatically, had a subtle nuance which allowed their evil intent to unwind slowly and believably naturally. The Firemen (Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford and Bradley Travis) were an engaging Monty Pythonesque trio.

Max Hoehn’s production (in sets and costumes by Jemima Robinson) did precisely what he said he wanted to achieve and created ‘a modern, middle-class environment that’s recognisable to UK audiences. It could be the UK, but I’ve also made an effort to make sure a sort of Mitteleuropäisch sensibility is still present, as well as, visual references that are not strictly contemporary.’ Hoehn’s direction was simple and effective with a number of inspired comic touches despite the potential darkness of the subject matter and I look forward to seeing more from him – and Independent Opera – in the future.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells visit http://www.independentopera.com/.

Look out for the release of Biedermann und die Brandstifter on CD (ORF 3190) – a live recording of the 2013 Neue Oper Wien production.  

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