In Betrothal in a Monastery Prokofiev chose a subject – it’s based on an exaggerated farce by Richard Brinsley Sheridan – that he thought would offer the opportunity for “champagne à la Mozart or Rossini”. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new production for the Staatsoper’s Festtage, however, is painfully short of fizz.

Lauri Vasar, Goran Jurić, Violeta Urmana, Aida Garifullina (Luisa) und Bogdan Volkov
© Ruth and Martin Walz

The Russian director recasts the complete opera as therapeutic role play (not for the first time) – here a treatment session for “Opera-Addicts Anonymous”. It all takes place in a single large modern room (brightly lit by Gleb Filshtinsky), a white board and array of old Staatsoper seats the only props. Projections give us a brief description of who’s who in this cast of unfortunates: Violeta is an opera star failing to come to grips her waning powers, for example, Aida a young girl dealing with the fall-out from an unreciprocated infatuation with Jonas Kaufmann, Lauri a bitter and disillusioned opera critic.

The session is overseen by the “Moderator” – played by Maxim Paster, mopping up sundry tenor roles – and begins with him at the white board jotting down characters for an opera they are about to create. Tcherniakov’s characters then go about very loosely enacting the plot of Prokofiev’s opera, sniggering at the silliness of it all before the therapy itself brings about various moments of revelation and healing – marked by spasms and screams and followed by much hugging and patting on the back.

In Act 4 a projection tells us that we’ve reached the end of the performance with the close of the penultimate scene (a few patrons even made a hasty exit at this point) before the actual final scene is presented as an ‘Alternative Finale as dreamt by Don Jerome’, with the chorus finally appearing on stage as a menagerie of operatic characters and lookalikes. It’s a rare moment of wit and colour in an opera that should be awash with them, and the costume designer, Elena Zaytseva, without much to do until that point, certainly rose to the challenge.

Betrothal in a Monastery
© Ruth und Martin Walz

Tcherniakov can’t be faulted in terms of realising his ideas on the more micro level of the Personenregie, and an excellent cast presented several outstanding performances. Violeta Urmana clearly relished in the chance essentially to play herself. Goran Jurić brought a pleasing bass and plenty of character to Mendoza, and Lauri Vasar was impressive as his sidekick Don Carlos. Bogdan Volkov paraded a beautifully sweet tenor as Don Antonio and Andrey Zhilikhovsky a firm, virile baritone as Don Ferdinand.

Aida Garifullina flooded Luisa’s lines with gorgeous creamy tone, and Anna Goryachova stood out both vocally and dramatically as Clara – her cathartic breakdown in the monastery was a moment of irresistible, visceral power. Stephan Rügamer’s Don Jerome was outstanding, too, his performance a tour de force that also had the German tenor playing the trumpet himself at the start of Act 3 and glockenspiel (here appearing as metal goblets) in the finale.

Anna Goryachova (Clara), Bogdan Volkov (Don Antonio) and Violeta Urmana (The Duenna)
© Ruth und Martin Walz

There are a couple of moments when we see characteristics of Tcherniakov’s and Prokofiev’s different casts momentarily overlap. On the whole, though, I was left wondering why of all operas this comedy – already a multi-layered farce based on a parody of a well-worn genre – should have been deemed suitable for this treatment. There are few giggles at the knowing premise, but the moments of the score that least fit are shushed away: the cast are given headphones and listen to Act 2’s choruses as part of a listening exercise. And general problems with the unsustainability of the concept are compounded by troubling inconsistency of tone in its realisation. We are initially invited to mock these addicts but are then expected to take them – not to mention their condition and its treatment – seriously. It’s difficult to care about these thinly sketched personas, while the original plot exists as just a distant echo, mainly in Tcherniakov’s own synopsis in the programme, which opts disingenuously to give us the “story … as told in the libretto”.

The production, perhaps inevitably, also has a negative effect on the way one perceives Prokofiev’s brilliantly tuneful and inventive score, packed with characterisations and descriptive details that are left to evaporate when so fully uncoupled from the action that so directly inspired them. Barenboim’s conducting of the Staatskapelle might also have had a little more bite and drive at times, but this was playing and conducting of the highest quality, the score sounding terrific. There was certainly never any doubting the commitment of musicians and singers. If anything is likely to cure an unhealthy addiction to opera, though, it’s likely to be this sort of production.