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A Delightful Rarity from the Berliner Kammeroper

Haus der Berliner Festspiele
09/24/2006 -  and 22, 23 and 27 September
Reinhard Keiser: Arsinoe oder La Grandezza d'Animo
Eeva Tenkanen (Arsinoe), Melanie Hirsch (Berenice), Olivia Vermeulen (Lesbia), Raimonds Spogis (Demetrius), Julian Podger (Tolomeo), Jörg Gottschick (Aceste), Matthias Jahrmärker (Elmiro), Steffen Wolf (Ninfo)
Kay Kuntze (Director), Irene Suhr (Stage and Costume Designer), Lutz Deppe (Lighting)
Thomas Ihlenfeldt (Conductor)
Capella Orlandi Bremen

Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) composed dozens of operas for Hamburg's Theatre on the Goosemarket, founded in 1678 and thus the first public opera house north of the Alps. Arsinoe, dating from 1710, is one of twenty works that have come down to us. A few arias are in Italian, but all recitatives, spoken lines plus most arias are in German. Like popular Venetian opera of the era, it mixes a serious plot amongst royal characters with comical goings-on amongst the lower orders. Kay Kuntze's engaging production gives an amusing edge even to the high-falutin actions of the upper class and one comes away convinced that such was the original intention three centuries ago.

The plot: Arsinoe is the widow of King Agas of Cyrene. He had arranged for their daughter, Berenice, to marry Tolomeo, the crown prince of Egypt. Arsinoe, though, has other ideas and, sight unseen, invites Demetrius, king of Macedonia, to marry her daughter. Berenice is a rebellious young lady who has had many suitors and has scorned them all. Arsinoe's chief minister, Aceste, has a son, Elmiro, for whom he has great ambitions - perhaps even marriage to the crown princess. Elmiro is an agreable young man who seems to go along with his father's ambitions, but is carrying on a dalliance with Arsinoe's servant and confidant, Lesbia. She returns his affections but is unsure just how long they will last. The eighth character is Aceste's cynical servant, the foppish Ninfo, whose sharp observations are a constant source of annoyance for his boss.

The plot needs a complicating factor to energize it, and this comes when Demetrius arrives in Cyrene and instantly falls in love with the wrong woman, namely his would-be mother-in-law - and Arsinoe reciprocates. Even though she earlier spurned Demetrius, Berenice is desperate to have him now that he has cast her aside for (oh horror!) her own mother. Her other suitor, Tolomeo, is also on the scene. An unassertive and gaffe-prone young man, he maintains an air of wounded dignity throughout.

As we know, these ancient Greek stories of forbidden love always lead to deep tragedy and this one seems to follow the usual pattern. After many stressful confrontations, Demetrius takes poison and falls (apparently) dead. This is when the opera's subtitle "the greatness of soul" comes to the fore. Arsinoe's mourning is majestic to behold and Berenice, whose most profound emotion thus far has been petulance, is also moved to grief and to a new-found maturity. She thus ends her career as a spoiled princess and becomes a dutiful one by vowing to accept her late father's wish that she marry Tolomeo (who finally achieves some well-earned gratification). However, no sooner has she done this than Demetrius revives! Having properly mourned him, Berenice is not exactly pleased that he isn't really dead - soprano Melanie Hirsch is wonderfully droll in portraying someone who suspects that a trick has been played on her but is not allowed to say so because of her now ultra-dignified role.

What seems embarked on noble tragedy thus ends happily, with three rejoicing couples on stage. Arsinoe can team up with Demetrius, and Lesbia with Elmiro. His ambitious father isn't exactly happy, but after all the crown princess is no longer available.

Irene Suhr's designs are exceedingly witty, always teetering on the edge of absurdity. Make-up combines elements of commedia dell'arte plus Dr. Caligari. For costuming she seems to have been given a grab-bag of attractive fabric snippets and told to go wild, which she has done with great effect.

Kay Kuntze has come up with a nonstop parade of creative staging ideas. Elmiro and Lesbia have a wordless love scene in which they hum ardent musical lines to one another. Elmiro puts a grape between his teeth and hums to Lesbia. She then takes the grape between her teeth and hums to him. In a later scene, Elmiro indicates a pain in his chest (heartache) and reaches into his shirt, producing a bunch of grapes. They then descend into the stage to partake of the fruits of love.

A wide strip of crimson cloth that must be at least thirty metres long is deployed to great advantage in many scenes. At first it is an exaggeratedly long train for the regal Arsinoe. Later it helps symbolize the romantic entanglements of the central characters as they get entwined within it while singing of their individual plights. It becomes the rope with which mother and daughter have a tug-of-war over the desirable Demetrius. Later yet it defines the room in which Arsinoe and Demetrius consummate their love, and which the enraged Berenice slashes with a knife.

The Capella Orlandi Bremen, an authentic instruments ensemble of twelve players, has a lot of experience performing Keiser and their blithe accompaniment meshed perfectly with the stage action. The singers - three sopranos, two tenors and three baritones - were well-chosen and have nicely contrasting voices. Although it is baroque opera, nobody goes overboard with the coloratura and there are no action-hampering da capo arias. The music and action move along at a smart pace (perhaps editiong was a contributing factor?) and the performance, with one interval, lasts just over three hours. In addition, the well-equipped modern theatre (the former Freie Volksbüne, built c.1960) has a revolving stage that facilitates cinematic flow.

The one disappointing element of the evening was the small size of the audience. Are Berliners so spoiled for choice that they can afford to miss this? The Berliner Kammeroper celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary with a series of five programs through October. I'm sorry I won't be here to see them.

Michael Johnson



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