Barrie Kosky’s exuberant, all-singing, all-dancing Orpheus at the Komische Oper

GermanyGermany Monteverdi (arr. Kats-Chernin), L’Orfeo: Soloists, Dancers, Chorus (chorus master: David Caevlius) and Orchestra of the Komische Oper / Matthew Toogood (conductor). Komische Oper, Berlin, 16.4.2022. (MB)

Dominik Köninger (Orpheus) and Peter Renz (Amor) © Iko Freese

L’Orfeo (sung as Orpheus in German translation by Susanne Felicitas Wolf)

Director – Barrie Kosky
Designs – Katrin Lea Tag
Costumes – Katharina Tasch
Dramaturgy – Ulrich Lenz
Choreography – Otto Pichler
Lighting – Alexander Koppelmann

Orfeo – Dominik Köninger
Euridice – Josefine Mindus
Amor – Peter Renz
Sylvia/Proserpina – Maria Fiselier
Plutone, Caronte – Tijl Faveyts
Figures of Orpheus and Eurydice – Alexander Soehnle, Helen Schumann
Dancers – Meri Ahmaniemi, Martina Borroni, Ana Dordevic, Zoltan Fekete, Michael Fernandez, Paul Gerritsen, Claudio Greco, Marcel Prét, Tara Rendell, Lorenzo Soragni

Barrie Kosky’s advent as Intendant of the Komische Oper in 2012 was marked by a twelve-hour ‘Monteverdi Trilogy’, in which the three extant Monteverdi operas were given in new productions and in newly composed realisations by Elena Kats-Chernin (also new German translations by Susanne Felicitas Wolf). Avid Monteverdian, especially in non-‘period’ guise, though I be, I was unable to attend, but have tried to make up for that since. I saw Poppea (review here) five years later, in 2017; five years, after that, comes Orpheus/Orfeo. If I must wait another five for Ulisse, so be it, but I hope to have opportunity a little sooner.

Orpheus, as one would expect, was originally seen first. Although I was surprised how well Poppea adapted to German translation — testament, doubtless, to Wolf’s work, as well as to collaboration with Kosky and Kats-Chernin — this probably did still more so. It seemed, if anything, more conceived as a new whole. (Or perhaps I was more receptive. Who knows?) At any rate, Kats-Chernin’s opening suggests more powerfully something new, rising from a stable yet uncertain bass, to take in yet also go beyond Monteverdi (including leaving, with great regret, some elements of an acknowledged masterpiece). The sound-world in general speaks of the Mediterranean — all its shores, not just the north-west — though in more popular vein than, say, Henze’s extraordinary realisation of Ulisse. This, one might say, is Monteverdi for the Komische Oper rather than for Salzburg.

Kats-Chernin deploys a splendid array of continuo instruments (accordion, bandoneon, cimbalom, the ancient djoze, and double bass). Apparently, some listeners were unhappy with the use of accordion in particular, lamenting its lack of decay, which they associated, not entirely unreasonably, with continuo playing. It did not trouble me; quite the contrary, I found it atmospheric and duly flexible. I should also point doubters (on principle) to Monteverdi’s own use of organ, including the reedy regal, for Hades. Otherwise, we have six first violins, four seconds, two double basses, two flutes/piccolos, two clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, percussion (including vibraphone), celesta, and synthesiser; and, from the auditorium, used in sparing yet quite spectacular fashion, two antiphonal funeral bands (two bassoons; two horns, two trombones, tuba, and percussion; and two horns, two trumpets, bass trombone, tuba, and percussion). It is ‘interventionist’, I suppose. Whatever would be the point, especially in Orfeo, with its meticulous instrumentation, of not being so? But, with hints of a liminal electronic world, yet still rooted in worlds of Monteverdi and, one can fancy, of Thrace, it challenges us to locate ourselves and our responses within a lush, almost overgrown visual world prior to civilisation.

Barrie Kosky’s Orpheus for the Komische Oper

Kosky’s staging is, as one might expect, still more exuberant: literally, at times, all-singing, all-dancing. The energy of the opening wedding festivities must have come across as a powerful statement of intent, as well as a great deal of fun; it still does now, also as a fine testament to his years as Intendant. There are no inhibitions here, and somehow even fewer as time goes by. The sheer physicality and sensuality of by no means explicit portrayal, centred on Dominik Köninger’s sensationally sung, danced, and acted Orpheus (also a fine Nerone in Poppea) is impossible to resist. Amidst nymphs, fauns, a whole cosmogony of ancient-modern life, everyone can find his, her, or their part. One can see and more or less feel the sweat on their bodies, prior to tragedy and then again prior to what may or may not be apotheosis. La Musica becomes Amor/Cupid, signalling less a move away from the primacy of music as acknowledgement of its greater powers. Peter Renz I recognised from Poppea; he did a similarly characterful job here, and is clearly a crucial thread running between the three.

It is not Apollo, but a woman — Sylvia (Maria Fiselier), albeit singing Apollo’s words — who beautifully calls Orpheus to the stars. I am not quite sure why; at the time, I simply assumed it was, for some reason, a female Apollo. Contrast with Tijl Faveyts’s dark-hued bass (Pluto/Charon) is also heightened. It does no harm, though, and perhaps reflects a greater surrounding fluidity, to which all contribute, ambiguous puppet figures of Orpheus and Eurydike included. The latter’s return to Hades is accomplished in moving vocal terms by Josefine Mindus, as well as by a finely conceived — and executed – moment of stage decision, returning her to those depths from which she had never quite risen. In that connection, what happens at the close is interesting, Orpheus re-entering, at Cupid’s behest, the pool into which he had descended to find his love in Hades. Perhaps this is not, after all, the afterlife he has been promised. Happy Easter.

Mark Berry

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