I arrived to my Berlin apartment three days ago and looked at the emptiness. I was somewhat tired of the traveling, enjoying a more sedentary experience in New York, with my girlfriend near and a voice studio that has been continually thriving. Yet, I could not imagine leaving this place, given a group of sensational singing souls to which I am dedicated—Singers who are so committed to their art that being in their presence makes teaching a noble pursuit and the responsibility of guiding them an honor of the highest order. — Indeed, the last couple of teaching days quickly reaffirmed the reasons why I am here, but it was yet another unusual production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin under the unmistakable leadership of Maestro Donald Runnicles that sealed my commitment to this grey and fair city.
I have loved Britten’s Peter Grimes, among my top half dozen operas, along with Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Parsifal, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Debussy’s Pélléas et Mélisande and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Yet, I have never had the opportunity to see Grimes live. The level of refinement of this evening’s magic can be encapsulated in one of my favorite German words: Consequenz! Responsibility! Artistic responsibility!
Unplanned, I found myself under the same roof with some of my most respected musical colleagues in Berlin: Adelle Eslinger, a long time friend and colleague from my University of Michigan days, who has become one of the most respected operatic coaches in the world; Rupert Dussmann, another exceptional coach, with whom I had the pleasure of working when he was head coach at the Staatsoper Berlin at the end of my baritone days; Kanako Kanagawa, one of my very favorite musicians, a coach of especial musical integrity who served as the musical backbone of the Berlin International Opera, during my tenure on the board of that organization and teacher at the famous Hans Eisler Hochschule für Musik; the delightful Andrej Hovrin, another of Berlin’s exceptional coaches who has become a frequent collaborator on many fronts and my dear friend, colleague and client (would be almost disrespectful to call her student), the electrifying mezzo, Nadine Weissmann, who will make her Bayreuth debut this summer as Erda in Wagner’s Ring.
To watch a great operatic production is already life-changing, but to do so in the company of exceptional musical souls is unforgettable. Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes, is a heart-wrenching dramatic work of extreme musical complexity that captures life at its paradoxical rawest. Accidental man slaughter or murder; a drive for life or an insane obsession for security, tragedy, torture and relief; sacrifice and redemption…In the end, the singers, the orchestra, the dancers, the conductor must make it palpable, immediate, alive…The Deutsche Oper Berlin succeeds on every front!
David Alden’s staging, a co-production with the English National Opera is a tour de force and a good case made for the virtues of Regie Theater, when applied with intelligence to further the visceral impact of the work at hand, rather than obliterate the central musical/theatrical argument, as is too often the case today, particularly in German theaters. A minimal set, by Paul Steinberg, with movable walls that can evoke endless spaciousness one moment and claustrophobia the next, supports in very specific terms the emotional drive of the moment. Costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, choreography by Maxime Braham and lighting by Adam Silverman combine effortlessly to create a dynamic, atmospheric menagerie of emotions, exploring the many foibles of a small village in flux, tortured between religious fervor and secular debauchery and everything in between, all suggested in Britten’s transparent and evocative score and Montagu Slater’s Shakespeare influenced libretto.
The ensemble cast reveals a depth in the DOB’s vocal personnel that should be the envy of any house in the world. These singing-actors exhibit a level of total theatricality that is not often experienced:
Christopher Ventris has been a solid singing actor for years, yet a singing actor’s genius sometimes requires the right vehicle in order to be fully released. I cannot imagine a singer in the world, since the best days of John Vickers, who can reveal so much of this tortured character’s soul and with such vocal mastery to boot. Mr. Ventris reveals a voice of immense power, subtlety and flexibility and a physical presence of a master Shakespearean. Michaela Kaune’s Ellen Orford balanced him perfectly, revealing both the tenderness and torture of her love for this forsaken man. Her rendition of the famous Embroidery Aria, a real set-piece, bloomed naturally from the framework of a character she expertly developed throughout the evening. Marcus Brück, one of the veterans of the ensemble and a refined singer did some of his finest work to date in the short but significant role of Balstrode. Rebecca Pont Davies played a compelling and memorable androgynous version of Auntie supported marvelously by the detailed characterizations of Hila Fahima (a voice to watch, a recent Königin der Nacht here) and Kim-Lillian Strebel as the nieces, one moment innocent young girls, the next dangerous Lolita-like jailbaits. The sonorous Hobson of new ensemble member Albert Pesendorfer (magnificent bass, heard as an imposing Gurnemanz earlier this season), the swaggering Ned Keene of Simon Pauly, particularly in his interactions with veteran Dana Beth Miller as Mrs. Sedley and Thomas Blondelle’s incisive English diction as Bob Boles, all add to the rich color palate of this magnificent texture. The Choruses (under William Spaulding) and Dance Corps of the DOB should win some kind of award for the detail work they exhibit here. It must have taken hundreds of hours to accomplish this tour-de-force.
If I were to chose a hero this evening it would have to be the combination of General Music Director, Donald Runnicles and the attentive and refined execution of this multi-layered score by the DOB Orchestra. From a poetic Wagner Ring Cycle, to a recent Lohengrin of note and a deft reading of Janacek’s Jenufa (to a brilliantly psychologically tortured production by Christopher Loy) to this evening’s performance, and a concert with the inimitable Nina Stemme last year, the combination of Maestro Runnicles and his new band is changing the landscape in Berlin in no uncertain terms. This is a conductor who is at his apogee and there is no sign of leveling off. His readings are at once masterfully controlled and expertly spontaneous. Spontaneity comes not out of involuntary nuances but rather from a profound knowledge of the musical whole. A clear attention to structure makes spontaneous burst a natural evolution of living music that never destroys the fundamental fabric of the global whole.
Opera of this kind, of this level, is more a rarity today than it should ever be. My lamentations of too much plane travel upon arriving in Berlin a few days ago are all but erased. It is a privilege, as a singer of opera, to live in a city that houses three top level opera houses. It is an outright gift to know that evenings like this one have been and will probably be more routine at the DOB in coming years. And to borrow a line I once heard from the righteously proud General Music Director himself after one of his unmitigated successes here: “Es lebe die Deutsche Oper!” Long Live The Deutsche Oper Berlin!