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Serious opera

Deutsche Oper
11/11/2004 -  and 15, 18 November 2004

Gioacchino Rossini: Semiramide

Denia Mazzola (Semiramide), Hadar Halévy (Arsace), Michele Pertusi (Assur), Kenneth Tarver (Idreno), Stephanie Weiss (Azema), Piér Dalàs (Oroe), Yosep Kang (Mitrane), Hidekazu Tsumaya (Ghost of Ninus), Slavtscho Kurschumov (Arbate)

Patrick Fournillier (conductor), Kirstem Harms (director)

Berlin Symphoniker, Choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin

11/04/2004 and 7, 10, 16 November 2004

Amilcare Ponchielli: La Gioconda

Anna Shafajinkaia (La Gioconda), Claire Powell (La Cieca), Arutjun Kotchinian (Alvise Badoero), Michaela Schuster (Laura), Walter Fraccaro (Enzo Grimaldo), Alberto Mastromarino (Barnabà)

Paolo Olmi (conductor), Filippo Sanjust (director)

Orchestra and Choir of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, soloists and ladies of the Opera Ballet

By a historical accident, Berlin has three major opera houses, while London, Paris and New York manage with two and Milan with just the one. All three houses in Berlin are state funded, and Berlin's finances are in a deep hole, so there has been considerable debate about what arts funding it can really afford. The city's world-class Berlin Philharmoniker orchestra has its funding protected under the deal which persuaded Simon Rattle to take over its leadership, which leaves the opera even more on the spot. The current plan, to keep the three houses open under a single management, could be criticized on the grounds that each house has its own mission and audience. Certainly, the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden has a traditional constituency that looks back to its imperial origins and was if anything preserved by the artistic conservatism of the German Democratic Republic. The Komische Oper has a well-defined role, also based in its original role as the equivalent of the Opéra Comique in Paris, as the house for theatrical, often edgy, opera. The Deutsche Oper, on the other hand, was built specifically so that the former West Berlin would have an opera house, and its great size and self-conscious modernity (it looks a lot like the Royal Festival Hall in London) are essentially a gesture directed at the houses in the east of the city, an artistic equivalent of the huge KaDeWe department store.

In a random week, Unter den Linden has a string of Toscas and Bohèmes, which are at least guaranteed to be popular, and the Komische Oper has a musically first-rate Alcina directed by David Alden, which is entertaining and original, as well as trendy. Meanwhile, the Deutsche Oper has Rossini's opera seria Semiramide and Ponchielli's ripe melodrama La Gioconda, both with pretty good singers but both lasting more than four hours on a weeknight and neither with any obvious appeal except for devotees.

Semiramide would normally be agreed to be the better opera by far: Rossini's classical tragedy of 1823, based on a play by Voltaire, has a superb title role, a queen who murdered her husband to secure the throne, lost her son as a result, and is now trapped by the demands of the murderer, Assur, and an ambiguous prophecy about the best way to secure peace for her kingdom. The music, to modern ears midway between Mozart's opera seria and early Verdi, with some of the rhetorical bravura of bel canto but little of the potential for vocal showing off, reflects the grandeur and seriousness of the drama. Kirsten Harms' austere, dignified production on the massive stage of the Deutsche Oper left plenty of space for the music and the formality of the drama, which the singers generally delivered. Denia Mazzola was passionate and regal in the title role, if not quite old enough, and Michele Pertusi was sinister if monochrome as the villain Assur, who also competes with Semiramide's disguised son for the princess Azema. Hadar Halévy as Arbace, the disguised son, was heroic of voice and person, and lovely in duet with Stephanie Weiss as Azema.

Ponchielli is altogether regarded as a lesser composer than Rossini, but he also can be seen to occupy a transitional role. He grew up in the generation after Verdi, and taught both Mascagni and Puccini. His librettist for La Gioconda was, pseudonynously, Arrigo Boito, a minor composer who later collaborated with Verdi as his librettist in the great works of Verdi's old age. La Gioconda is based on a story by Victor Hugo which is basically a four-hander about two women who are attached to the same man but in love with another one, a basic Verdian plot. But Boito adds a vile, Shakespearean, villain and a saintly old lady, the mother of the street-singer heroine of the title, who the villain loathes. The resulting complexity of the action, combined with a Venetian setting of carnival, pirate cove, palace festival and funerary island, make the musical numbers more fragmented than they might otherwise be, with comparatively brief set pieces, including fairly famous ones for La Gioconda and the tenor she loves in vain, Ezio. There are hints of Puccini-like stagecraft, but Ponchielli was a full-blooded admirer of French grand opera, and it is even easier to see him as the ancestor of Massenet, down to the decorative third-act ballet that (the audience knows) takes place as horror unfolds off stage.

Filippo Sanjust's production used copies of the sets from the original period of the opera's production and (presumably) authentic blocking and gestures. It was all a bit like amateur Gilbert and Sullivan, with revellers and pirates shuffling in and out of formation and semaphored tra-la-las all round. The singers were all well up to delivering the music, as they were in Semiramide. Anna Shafajinkaia looked and sounded luscious in the title role, in which the character spent most of her time thanklessly running around worrying about her mother. Walter Fraccaro was a reasonably glamorous Enzo, Arutjun Kotchinian a severe Alvise with more than a hint of Philip II from Don Carlos, and Alberto Mastromarino a jolly, sleazy Barnabà. Claire Powell was dignified in the even more thankless role of La Cieca, Gioconda's blind mother. Michaela Schuster stepped in as Laura and sang with sweet force.

So, two rather marginal operas cast with high quality voices in productions that are workmanlike at best. Maybe this was an odd week at the Deutsche Oper, but you have to ask whether on this evidence this is a house whose achievements justify its existence. There were enthusiasts in the audience for both performances, but they were clearly connoisseurs who knew when the vocal high points were coming and cheered when they arrived. It would be difficult to argue that this week's opera added much to anybody else's life.

HE Elsom



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