Usually, I don’t find much to be excited about in opera stagings meant to overhaul the genre, to give it the resuscitation it apparently needs. They are always more promising on paper, always less effective in execution: I’ve seen all kinds of sexual permissiveness, giant machines, film projections, even singing robots (an especially low point). Ultimately they don’t translate into any kind of feeling in the theater, anything beyond or equivalent to what the opera itself is able to do.

© Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de
© Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

But I was utterly charmed and transfixed by Barrie Kosky’s production of Monteverdi’s Orpheus at the Komische Oper in Berlin, which opened last year and is enjoying a further run this season, conducted by André de Ridder. On paper it may seem no different from any number of other productions. There is a cross-dressing Muse, a stage that juts out past the orchestra pit, modern instruments, a healthy dose of nudity, and a non-canonical ending. Yet, unlike any number of other productions, Orpheus works because it manages to transfigure those elements into oodles of joy.

The one decision I am hesitant about is that of using an accordion as a continuo instrument. Continuo instruments tend to betray a work’s age, and I can understand the desire to update the tell-tale scratchings of the Baroque period to something a little less “period”. Yet there are problems with both sound and style here. The accordion is loud, and it doesn’t fade out the way a harpsichord does or string instruments can; it has a much harder time sounding the chord and then backing off to give the singer space. It simply does not fulfill the continuo function all that well.

Since a continuo musician, by convention, is required to improvise and embellish resting harmonies, the accordionist also indulges in a number of musical idioms, many of them obviously from after Monteverdi’s time (French chanson is naturally preeminent). But this is playing fast and loose with the score. Just because the embellishments are for the most part unnotated does not mean you can use any idiom you wish; the expectation is, obviously, that the continuo musicians improvise in ways that are native to the original instruments. The problem with the current production of Orpheus is that much of it doesn’t sound like Orpheus at all. Which is fine – so long as its creators realize that the exemption of 17th-century idioms and textures comes with losses, such as of a certain aridity and nobility of sound. These are positive values in Monteverdi’s music, not only dated habits to be cast aside.

Outside the pit, this Orpheus’s zaniness becomes much more convincing and delightful. Sure, most of us have seen nudity on an opera stage by now, but has it ever been as joyful as this? There is no deep sexual shame here, but rather just a bunch of attractive young people, cavorting around the stage and through the hall with nary a thing on. It feels like a rebuke of opera’s sexual pessimism and deep Catholicism, even while it is just fun to look at – as are the many other bodies, variously clothed and unclothed, that prance and sweat and sing on the platform that extends nearly halfway into the parterre. It is a reminder to use all of your senses, almost as if you could breathe in opera, or feel its body against yours. In a revival of opera’s first major work, the reminder feels critical.

I do not think an opera singer has ever been asked to dance as much as Dominik Köninger does, who plays the title role; the demands placed upon him are much closer to those of musical theater. It works because, when Orpheus pleads to the heavens, we see Köninger’s body shining with sweat, his chest still heaving. The physical immediacy of these singers cuts through opera’s artifice, the distance it often creates and exploits between expression and action. Yet this distance is also thematized in this production in the figure of the puppeteer, who beautifully, in his person, conveys the separation of voice, body and figure that is needed to create the illusion of opera. Orpheus, in the end, manages to be much more than a great night out with Monteverdi; it also movingly acknowledges the pleasures, both high and low, that have been part of opera’s draw since the beginning.

****1