Aribert’s Reimann’s 1978 Lear was originally commissioned by the Bayerische Staatsoper, and saw its world premiere in Munich, so it’s a nice bit of symmetry to see the opera come home in 2021. There is much to enjoy in this confident production, a near-flawless musical performance led by a stellar cast, though it is let down in the end by its stilted staging.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Cordelia) and Christian Gerhaher (Lear)
© Wilfried Hösl

Andrew Watts was tremendous as Edgar, bringing considerable experience and emotional maturity to the role, his take on the tricky “Habe ich mein Leben retten können” truly breathtaking. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller gave a lovely performance as Cordelia, her pure, clean soprano voice teetering between gentleness and distress. Brenden Gunnell lent Kent warmth and presence, giving the role both a heroic edge and genuine sympathy. Matthias Klink’s intense take on Edmund had him nearly shouting some of his lines, in what remained an impressive vocal performance – and feat of stamina. And Christian Gerhaher was a wonderful Lear, endowing the lost king with a rich, strong baritone and plenty of emotional conviction. His final “Weint! Weint!” – Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl, howl!”, upon Cordelia’s death – was utterly heart-wrenching. Yet nearly all of these compelling performances felt undercut to some extent by the production choices.

Christian Gerhaher (Lear)
© Wilfried Hösl

Forewarned Christoph Marthaler fans will have expected the stripped down scenography, the dry humour, the minimalism. On the surface, Reimann’s opera might seem like a good choice, since this vision of Lear, whittled down in Claus H. Henneberg’s compact libretto, strips the king of his title and places the Fool at the centre of the story. Scottish actor Graham Valentine was excellent in this spoken role, see-sawing between a kind of mocking Sprechgesang and faux-RSC pastiche: here, the Fool becomes an omnipresent onlooker, narrator and commentator, seemingly the only one who knows the rules of this strange world.

And the rules of Marthaler’s staging certainly take some understanding. Why is Lear suddenly an entomologist? Why is Kent wrapped in a dead deer? Why do Goneril and Regan keep spraying brand-name perfume into the air? None of this mild, uninteresting subversion adds anything to the story. The wheeled trolleys that drive several key set pieces don’t even wholly work as scenic devices – getting stuck in doorways, tripping up the cast, and once nearly sending a singer sprawling. An extra layer of separation is added by the onscreen rendering: at times, the over-the-top facial acting feels better suited to a Greek amphitheatre than a zoomed-in screen. Furthermore, the English-language subtitles were riddled with minor translation errors, a real shame considering a large chunk of the libretto is Shakespeare.

Christian Gerhaher (Lear)
© Wilfried Hösl

Nevertheless, musically, Lear remains an impressive work, one that has aged well. Under Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s island-in-a-storm leadership, the Staatsorchester gave the audience a real emotional battering, from moments of shrieking strings and unbearable tension (Cordelia’s “Nichts!”) to the more delicate, no less affecting moments (the tender string interlude after Gloucester’s blinding; the haunting, angular flute intermezzo). The choir’s interventions were striking, even in exile offstage. The storm sequence sounded just tremendous, with its discordant brass lines and its chaos of cymbals and timpani and shimmering metal sheet – the percussion section, despite its temporary relocation outside the pit, really had a chance to shine – but, like many other moments of high drama, it was sabotaged by the accompanying staging, which has Lear being wheeled around an empty, well-lit room on a trolley, in what ends up serving as an anticlimactic synecdoche for the entire staging. This is the heart of Reimann’s vision for his intense, emotional opera: here is Lear, who has lost everything; here is Christian Gerhaher, singing his heart out – all into what amounts to a narrative and atmospheric void. “Nothing will come of nothing” indeed.

Georg Nigl (Gloucester), Marc Bodnar (Knight) and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Cordelia)
© Wilfried Hösl

In the interviews broadcast during the intermission, dramaturg Benedikt Stampfli mentioned Marthaler’s desire “nicht zu doppeln” – not to double the music, the story, the text, but instead to offer an alternate angle of insight or commentary. This would make sense if King Lear were a black-and-white tale in need of a modern twist: instead, it’s already an examination of the complexity of human emotions and desires; a tragedy of errors and illuminations, full of paradoxes, disguises, betrayals and changes of heart. Nevertheless, the core of Lear is love, and this is where the Munich production really swings and misses. Edgar’s love saves Gloucester; Kent’s love saves Lear; love shows both Edmund and the king – too late – the error of their ways. Here, these emotional cruxes of the story are sung straight-faced, directly at the audience; the reunited Lear and Cordelia can’t even bring themselves to hold hands. By withholding catharsis in this fashion, tragedy becomes transfigured into little more than a dark farce.


This performance was reviewed from the Bayerische Staatsoper TV live video stream  

Watch online
***11