With two happy endings, two recognition scenes, and a second act that seems more of a self-contained sequel than a conclusion to the first, Gluck’s Telemaco has come in for a musicological pasting over the years for its alleged weaknesses of dramatic content and construction. But the counter-appraisal has been just as forceful, with claims that a credible and beguiling whole can be made of its disjointed dramaturgy and stylistic diversity. After seeing this opera for the first time, I’m persuaded that the second view isn’t merely special pleading. I was also struck by the impression, almost a contradiction in terms, that Telemaco is a reform opera stuck in the body of an opera seria, and this, together with the not-insuperable problems of narrative loose threads and characters with obscure motives, all points towards a stage director with firm ideas and a strong guiding hand. Unfortunately Torsten Fischer was not that director.

Bejun Mehta (Telemaco), Anett Fritsch (Merione), extras & Arnold Schoenberg Chor, © Armin Bardel
Bejun Mehta (Telemaco), Anett Fritsch (Merione), extras & Arnold Schoenberg Chor,
© Armin Bardel

Vasilis Triantafillopoulos and Herbert Schäfer’s set is abstract and owes much to the aesthetic of Wieland Wagner’s Bayreuth productions from the 1950s: a bare white disc covers the stage, with scene changes marked by occasional rotation or steep raking (revealing an underbelly of girders painted an incongruous shade of red). Sometimes a mirror is lowered to give an elevated view of the disc from above, which led to some striking images. A smattering of props gives a vague sense of the plot: ladders for the enchanted forest which holds Odysseus’s men captive on Circe’s island, and rifles for when they assemble a militia. Costumes are nondescript modern for the cast and white straightjackets for the chorus. The one provocative visual is a scene straight out of Abu Ghraib to show Circe’s abuse of power, in which the chorus is blindfolded, bound, and smeared with stage blood. From there they move on to paramilitary uniforms, though the effect was more anonymizing than threatening, and I wondered why Fischer didn’t make this an onstage costume change, to communicate at least some sense of insurrection.

The direction of the singers is largely lifeless, with the cast always standing very close together but oddly never making much eye-contact. It could be stylized, but just isn’t. The chorus do a lot of uncoordinated zombie-walking around the disc, and while it’s sometimes tilted so that they can’t get off, Fischer implies no point about isolation or imprisonment. With the disc so large that it obstructed both proscenium arch exits, there were also long traffic jams whenever the chorus left the stage. With Circe in visible control of her realm – one could imagine her manipulating the disc – the space might have been used more effectively while putting flesh on the characters. But as it stood this was an inexpressive production.

Musically things were much livelier. René Jacobs polarizes opinion and I have never been much persuaded by the liberties he takes, particularly in Mozart, but his conducting in this performance was refined and self-effacing. Ornamentation and recitatives avoided any hint of extravagance, and some squawky natural horns aside, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin played precisely and sensitively. Tempi were ponderous for Jacobs but sensible by conventional standards.

Singing was respectable across the cast, with Korean-Canadian countertenor David DQ Lee stepping in with poise and cool for an ill Bejun Mehta. It was explained that the disc was too much of a health and safety hazard for a singer unfamiliar with the production, but he projected well from the orchestra pit and gave his arias a compelling expressive line (assistant director Philipp Krenn acted the role onstage and did a good job). Alexandrina Pendatchanska’s coloratura was a little squally in her first big aria, and elsewhere in her register the sound was rich but constrained. She sang much more freely in the second act and put in a wild acting performance which left us with no doubt as to Circe’s mood when she doesn’t get her own way. Rainer Trost stumbled a couple of times in his second-act aria but elsewhere his bright, flexible tenor made him a commanding presence as Ulisse. Anett Fritsch made the most of her small part, singing with a lovely open sound and infusing the production with some much-needed stage presence.