While Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle are on tour in Paris, the Berlin Staatsoper features a Baroque festival: Barocktage (Days of the Baroque). The festival opened on Friday with a representation of an oratorio in scenic form: Il primo omicidio, by Alessandro Scarlatti, in a production already presented at the Opéra de Paris at the beginning of the year. Alessandro Scarlatti was a prominent exponent of the “Neapolitan School”, and the main Italian opera composer between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th. The oratorio, telling the biblical story of Cain and Abel, was composed in 1707 for six voices and a small ensemble. The structure of the work is that of a typical Baroque opera: a sequel of recitatives and A-B-A arias, with few duets, and no chorus. This structure, together with the narrative of the plot, renders the work suitable to visual representation; director Romeo Castellucci gave an imaginative interpretation of the work, with visually stunning tableaux. In the first act the singers, in modern, neutral clothing, were striking poses typical of Baroque and Renaissance paintings, against a background of diffuse light in patches of colour reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s artwork (lights and costumes again by Castellucci). The resulting atmosphere was poetic, thoughtful and inspiring.

Thomas Walker (Adamo), Birgitte Christensen (Eva), Kristina Hammarström (Caino) and Olivia Vermeulen © Monika Rittershaus
Thomas Walker (Adamo), Birgitte Christensen (Eva), Kristina Hammarström (Caino) and Olivia Vermeulen
© Monika Rittershaus

As soon as the murder takes place, all the characters, including God and Lucifer, become split, the singers in the pit, and their child doubles acting on stage. The idea of child doubles is certainly not original in opera productions, but it did express beautifully the dissociation caused in humans and immortals alike by the first inhuman act: the first murder. It felt like a traditionally Freudian psychoanalytic interpretation: the Ego, the rational being, was out of sight, speaking from afar, while the Es, the child, made of pure emotion, roamed on stage, unbridled. The imagery also changed completely, the abstract squares of colour replaced by a stony shrubbery under a starred night sky.

At the end, when Adam and Eve are reconciled with God, who promises more children and eventually salvation, the two singers climb back on stage, hugging their child doubles: they are made whole again. The children on stage were incredibly professional and engaging, lip-synching the words and acting with conviction and commitment. Lukas Ray in particular, who was “dubbing” God, won the hearts of the whole audience with a very emotional interpretation, helped by the fact that he was the smallest child on stage – he looked no more than six.

Jeremias Hübener (Caino) and Lukas Ray (Voce di Dio) © Monika Rittershaus
Jeremias Hübener (Caino) and Lukas Ray (Voce di Dio)
© Monika Rittershaus

Conductor René Jacobs reinforced the instrumental ensemble with oboes, recorders, trombones, harp and lutes, adapting it to the size of the theatre. He led his B’Rock Orchestra and the singers in a respectful and thoughtful reading of the score, emphasising the severity of the music, and highlighting its mysticism. The precision of the instrumental players was admirable, the many obbligato solos accompanying the arias delivered with emotion and careful phrasing, with particular mention of the violin solos of Concertmaster Cecilia Bernardini.

The cast was comprised of Baroque specialists with wonderful voices, which Jacobs managed to rein in and maintain in a frame of humility and spirituality. Kristina Hammarström sang the murderous brother, Cain, with her deep mezzo, heightening the darkness in his character: envy, anger, desperation. Olivia Vermeulen's silvery mezzo was a beautiful contrast to Hammarström’s burnished voice: she managed to convey Abel’s innocence and pure heart. The scene of the sacrifice to God was one of the few kitsch moments in the production: the lamb that Abel sacrifices was represented by a surgical blood pouch, which he cut, smearing the blood on himself. The message was clear: Abel is the sacrificial lamb.

Elli Seiffert (Eva) and Ennio Kurth (Adamo) © Monika Rittershaus
Elli Seiffert (Eva) and Ennio Kurth (Adamo)
© Monika Rittershaus

Birgitte Christensen, as Eva, was one of the most pleasant surprises for me: her soprano was warm, round, and with beautiful high notes. Her lamentation aria after Abel’s death “Madre tenera ed amante” was perhaps the highlight of the evening. In a clear parallel with Jesus Christ, Abel’s body was washed and composed in death by some extras, while the child Eva put a blue scarf over her head, like the Virgin Mary, posing like in a Pietà. The violins echoed Christensen’s laments with elegant, measured portamenti which sounded unusual and poignant, in period instruments.

Benno Schachtner (Voce di Dio) © Monika Rittershaus
Benno Schachtner (Voce di Dio)
© Monika Rittershaus

Thomas Walker was a commanding, more than mournful, Adam, his tenor bright and confident. Benno Schachtner’s countertenor, as the voice of God, had a limited palette, sounding appropriate and correct but not particularly inspiring. Lucifer was Arttu Kataja, whose bass was remarkably smooth and elegant, even in the most evil of his arias while tempting Cain first to murder, and then, unsuccessfully, to suicide.

With the exception of very few boos to the production team, the evening was greatly appreciated by the Berlin audience, sealing a successful opening of the Barocktage.

****1