Christoph Marthaler’s new slapstick-heavy Giuditta at the Bayerisches Staatsoper

GermanyGermany Léhar, Giuditta: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra des Bayerisches Staatsoper / Titus Engel (conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, 18.12.2021. (ALL)

Bayerische Staatsoper’s Giuditta with Daniel Behle (front) (c) W. Hösl

Director – Christoph Marthaler
Production assistant – Joachim Rathke
Set and Costume design – Anna Viebrock
Lighting – Michael Bauer
Dramaturgy – Katharina Ortmann, Malte Ubenauf

Giuditta – Vida Miknevičiūtė
Captain Octavio – Daniel Behle
Anna – Kerstin Avemo
Sladek  – Sebastian Kohlhepp
Lieutenant Antonio – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Fräulein Schminke – Olivia Grigolli
Knorke – Ueli Jäggi
Horst – Raphael Clamer
Manuele, Giuditta’s Husband / A duke – Magne Håvard Brekke
Lord Barrymore – Marc Bodnar

Written in 1934, Giuditta is Franz Léhar’s last work, half-opera and half-operetta. It does not have a happy end. It is known perhaps today for two standout arias: ‘Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert’, loved by crooning tenors and ‘Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss’, a favourite encore of showy sopranos, and most recently one of Anna Netrebko’s party pieces.

The work proposed by the Bayerische Staatsoper for the end of year celebration is a very different hybrid animal. Léhar’s work is seriously cut and music from the likes of Eisler, Korngold, Krenek, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Bartók and Schoenberg is added. The libretto has also been heavily modified with excerpts from Ödön von Horváth’s play Sladek.

So, basically, this is two thirds Léhar, one third the work of others and above all 100% Christoph Marthaler. As he usually does, the Swiss director voluntarily trivialises the story. It totally lacks Viennese brilliance, but this is not done with malice and allows for some sense of fun. Some passages are a little verbose and serious, however the production really works when the action becomes wacky. Two waiters hilariously dance to empty the stage for a change of settings while the orchestra plays a passage from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. There is a delightful dance passage on a waltz from Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes. The highlight of the evening is a delirious Shostakovich Tango immediately followed by the magical duet between Paul and Marietta from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.

There are many second-degree jokes. Octavio steps in several times onto a back stage to sing one of his final arias, fighting a curtain that keeps falling at the wrong time. If you have seen any production by Marthaler, then you have a sense of the forensically produced unglamourous settings designed by his long-time collaborator Anna Viebrock. Marthaler adds a parade of amusing characters that seem to come out of a film by Fellini – one of them is the Swiss actor Marc Bodnar who, in the spoken character of Lord Barrymore, displays the worst possible English accent ever. Groucho, Harpo and Chico should have appeared but are missing.

As always in Munich, the overall cast is of the highest quality and one should not take this for granted. Daniel Behle has genuine tenor operatic style in what is a demanding role (Captain Octavio). It should be added that his character is supposed to play the piano at the end and in addition to his vocal skills he shows he can really play. Vida Miknevičiūtė as Giuditta has style and phrases superbly. The two operatic characters are a good match with their lighter counterparts, Kerstin Avemo (Anna) and Sebastian Kohlhepp (Sladek). The Swedish soprano, who has appeared several times in Geneva, has lovely coloratura top notes. Swiss conductor Titus Engel displayed authority in the multiplicity of styles the musical patchwork required. A few passages were somewhat unbalanced but these are the sort of issues that quickly get sorted out after a premiere.

Some in the audience booed Marthaler and his team when they arrived onstage. They were somewhat indifferent, showing neither surprise nor arrogance nor glee. Those who wish to judge for themselves will be able to do it either from any remaining performance or by watching it streaming on 26 January or on the German/French channel ARTE Concert from 27 February.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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