The open stage of the Komische Oper is plain – only a structure with 14 steps, framed by high walls and a catwalk around the orchestra pit, all in the same sand-coloured material. It is reminiscent of an Ancient Greek amphitheatre and is the site for The Bassarids, a music drama in one act as Hans Werner Henze called it. Indeed, a harrowing drama unfolds, contrasting control and freedom, reason and debauchery, personified by the young King Pentheus and the god Dionysus.

Günter Papendell (Pentheus) and Sean Panikkar (Dionysus) © Monika Rittershaus
Günter Papendell (Pentheus) and Sean Panikkar (Dionysus)
© Monika Rittershaus

Pentheus has been named successor to his grandfather Cadmus in ruling Thebes. A stranger appears and undermines the authority of the new king, calling the people to honour the god Dionysus, to indulge in pleasure and lust and rebel against reason and hard work. The people rally around this cult, including Pentheus' own mother, Agave. He tries to oppose the power of this libidinous and chaotic behaviour with the help of reason, to no avail. In order to find out for himself what this is all about, he dresses as a woman and sets off to mingle in the excesses of a nocturnal orgy. Everyone is in an ecstatic state and he is brutally killed by his own mother, who thinks he is a wild animal. It is only the next morning that she realises that the human remains she is holding are those of her son. Dionysus reveals his true personality and calls for unconditional worship by everyone.

First performed in 1966 at the Salzburg Festival, the work was adapted and reworked several times by the composer. Barrie Kosky and Vladimir Jurowski largely use the revised and reduced version of 1992 with the original libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman in English. The story is based on The Bacchae by Euripides from the 5th century BC.

Ivan Turšić (Tiresias), Jens Larsen (Cadmus), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Agave), Maragrita Nekrasova © Monika Rittershaus
Ivan Turšić (Tiresias), Jens Larsen (Cadmus), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Agave), Maragrita Nekrasova
© Monika Rittershaus

Kosky follows the basic principle of a Greek drama – the chorus comments on the events, most of the action taking place on the steps, giving the production a semi-concertante feel. Even the light of the huge chandelier remains on, as in a concert. Unfortunately, this additional light source has the disadvantage that one can hardly follow the surtitles, which are built into the seat backs. Diction was not good from the singers and chorus and there was no printed libretto.

Set and costume designer Katrin Lea Tag continues the monochromatic theme of the stage design in the costumes – the chorus appears in contemporary black dresses and suits. Only the royal family wears white or grey, and the dancing priests of Apollo get to appear in black and white. The excessive, inventive and extremely precise choreography of Otto Pichler is instantly recognisable in the dance numbers. Kosky's direction of the characters and the chorus incorporates a precise synchronicity as well. The orgiastic gestures are often exaggerated, but underline the alleged ecstasy of the people under the Dionysos' influence. Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere remains cool. It is only when Agave, mother of Pentheus, draws the scant remains of her son from a white plastic bag and laments her actions and fate that emotions and drama coalesce. These last 30 minutes of the opera are the epitome of music drama.

<i>The Bassarids</i> at Komische Oper © Monika Rittershaus
The Bassarids at Komische Oper
© Monika Rittershaus

Superb casting: Günter Papendell shone with his slender, powerful baritone as Pentheus. Slim, elegant with a seductive timbre and easy top notes, tenor Sean Panikkar, who has sung this role at the Salzburg Festival, was his opponent. Both men are contemporary in their actions and reactions, which is surely the intention of Kosky – the underlying values of good and evil, reason and debauchery, that these figures represent are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner showed the full range of her talent, from the initial cool-toned sovereign to the heart-wrenching, agonising lines of a mother becoming aware of what she's done. Jens Larsen as the ex-ruler of Thebes and grandfather of Pentheus, used his sonorous bass as the futile voice of reason. Tenor Ivan Turšić as Tiresias gyrated wildly while ranting his predictions. Margarita Nekrasova was a resolute nanny commenting on developments with a sardonic mezzo. Vera-Lotte Boecker was a fun-loving soubrette Autonoe, sister of Agave, who gladly followed Dionisian principles.

Even in the reduced version, the orchestral instrumentation is so large that the wood and brass instruments are positioned on the steps on stage. Jurowski elicited rhythmic precision from his musicians, letting the atonal and lavishly provocative melodies run wild. David Cavelius was responsible for the excellent singing of the chorus.

*****