In his pre-performance talk, director Balázs Kovalik read the synopsis of the first act of Artaserse, then joked that if anyone in the audience felt lost, they needn’t worry: very little of the said actions would transpire on the stage. Indeed, Kovalik and his team found a very simple way to cut the Gordian knot posed by overcomplicated Metastasian plots and the seemingly baffling psychological extremities of opera seria characters: by doing away with them and turning the opera into a story of something else entirely.

Natalya Boeva © Zsófia Pályi, Budapest Spring Festival
Natalya Boeva
© Zsófia Pályi, Budapest Spring Festival

Here, that meant the creation of a pasticcio depicting the life of Princess Wilhelmine, melding together excerpts of Hasse’s Artaserse and Ezio (both operas were performed at the opening of the Margravial Opera House at Bayreuth), an aria from Wilhelmine’s own opera Argenore, and the correspondence of the Prussian royal family, mostly Wilhelmine’s letters written to her brother Frederick. It works, and does so rather spectacularly: the carefully chosen passages from the operas correspond perfectly to the episodes of the family drama unfolding onstage, posing interesting parallels between the conflicts in fantasy and real life. Together with the selected letters and quotes, read by the appropriately regal and poignant Anja Silja as the adult Wilhelmine, the pasticcio tells its harrowing story very coherently.

The Theaterakademie August Everding’s performance was created for the reopening of the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth (originally constructed between 1744 and 1748 on Wilhelmine’s orders) and staging Wilhelmine’s life, with an emphasis on what this opera house meant for her, is certainly a touching way to reflect on the history of the house and its most prominent patron. Though such a lesson on Prussian history felt little more than a curiosity on the stage of the Müpa’s Festival Theatre, Kovalik’s poignant production made for an engaging and intensely affecting experience.

Eric Ander © Zsófia Pályi, Budapest Spring Festival
Eric Ander
© Zsófia Pályi, Budapest Spring Festival

Depicting the brutal upbringing of Wilhelmine and Frederick, the first act felt equally bone-chilling (Frederick William I’s brutal abuse of his children, Wilhelmine being forced into marriage and the unfortunate affair of Frederick’s attempted escape from the country resulting in the execution of his lover Hans Hermann von Katte) and deeply moving (especially the prison scene between von Katte and Frederick). During the second act, however, focus shifted all too heavily to Frederick and his struggles, the intriguing topics like Wilhelmine’s relationship with theater as a refuge and a site for coping with her traumas featuring all too briefly. The ending of the story is suitably bleak: following the estrangement of the siblings and the death of Frederick, Wilhelmine declares that she will only be able to find happiness and peace on the fields of Elysium – such things are not known to those still living in the mortal world.

The production design creates a suitable atmosphere for this grim story. An otherwise dark, barren stage is ruled by the miniature replica of the Bayreuth opera house, at times used to treat the audience to a brief demonstration of Baroque stagings, such as the plot of Artaserse being mimed on its stage during Act One. Sebastian Ellrich’s elegant costumes combine 18th-century court dresses and contemporary clothing, suggesting the timelessness of the story, while Benjamin Schmidt’s lightning design is simple but brutally effective.

Michael Hofstetter © Zsófia Pályi, Budapest Spring Festival
Michael Hofstetter
© Zsófia Pályi, Budapest Spring Festival

On the musical side, the quality of performances was a little more mixed. Most of the cast was made up of the students of the Theaterakademie August Everding, the young singers all displaying some promising talent after initial unsteadiness, and a considerable commitment to the demands of the staging. Natalya Boeva was unquestionably the best singer of the cast, displaying maturity and considerable mastery of her craft. Her smooth, plummy mezzo was a delight to listen to and her Act One aria “Caro mio ben, addio” was one of the musical and emotional highlights of the evening. As Frederick and Wilhelmine, sopranos Kathrin Zukowski and Pauline Rinvet both gave stirring, if not entirely faultless performances, Zukowski’s fuller voice contrasting well with Rinvet’s brighter, perky soprano.

Tenor Tianji Lin turned in a bravura performance (and a highly entertaining depiction of the court schemer, Henriette Charlotte von Pöllnitz) with his first aria, “Va, dal furor portata”, but struggled considerably in the second act with “Tergi l’ingiuste lagrime”. Eric Ander as the tyrannous father showed off a smooth, appealing bass, and though his singing was rather unsteady in the first half, he came into his own in the second, giving a moving rendition of “Figlio, se più non vivi”.

No faults could be found in the orchestra, though: Michael Hofstetter and the Hofkapelle München gave a scintillating performance, playing with a lush, glowing sound (the lusciousness of the strings and the woodwinds was particularly delightful), precision and intensity. That together with Kovalik’s production was more than enough to make for a compelling and memorable performance.

***11