One of the primary obstacles to this uniquely staged production was whether the adaptation of a Japanese setting would distract from Handel's musical creation of the Greek-myth based libretto. But the brilliant collaboration of talented singers, the flexible dancers of the Mamu Dance Theatre, under the choreography of Tadashi Endo, and the work of director Doris Dörrie, designer Bernd Lepel, and lighting designer Linus Fellbom, assured this wasn't the case. At least for the first two acts of its three-act structure.
The opera opens with an orchestral introduction accompanied by a mysterious and disturbing shadow of an unknown figure behind the stage screen. We realise later that this shadow represents the dark depths of our emotional core. Once the screen is lifted to reveal the first scene, we are already plagued by horrors of a slow and painful death. King Admeto is dying and he is tormented by the furies, played by dancers who transform themselves multiple times throughout the opera, providing a sort of fluid backdrop to the ongoing drama. They manifest themselves into sheep in the pasture, deer in the forest, flirtatious maidens at court, and palace guards, but always remaining ghostly white, their faces expressionless – a constant reminder of death, the underlying theme of this Greek myth. The dancers' movements are subtle and yet utterly convincing. By the end, I'd almost forgotten that Antigona's loyal companion was indeed dancer David Liu, and not a sheep.
It was clear that the singers had studied their movements well. They moved with almost as much grace as the dancers, adopting the style of Japanese movement to fit their character, whether it was warrior-like stances, sumo movement, or geisha-like grace. Marie Arnet as Alceste, the anguished Queen, enters the stage in a multitude of deathly white kimono layers, what could be interpreted as a symbol of her impending voyage to Hades. Upon her return, she is in black, disguised as a soldier, perhaps representative of her new rebirth into the world and the effect Hades has had upon her. Although the costumes were beautifully crafted for both Admeto and Alceste, I found it odd that princess Antigona did not seem to do much to disguise herself as a shepherdess or gardener as she remained in her elaborate dress throughout the performance (which also strangely fitted the least with the Japanese theme).
Arnet is heartbreaking in a beautiful suicide scene which despite suffering a slight stage mishap (the stage screen lifted too soon leaving behind a technical prop used to execute the effect of flowing blood), was one of the opera's gems. Arnet's Alceste is one of a quiet but fiercely determined nature. But at times, even in the suicide scene, she could have benefitted from a slighter stronger tone, to emphasise the heaviness of the task she is burdened with. After Alceste commits suicide, a strangely inhuman entity emerges from her crumpled figure, as if from a cocoon. This shadow-like spirit follows her throughout the rest of the opera, representing her internal emotional conflict. Gracefully in the butoh tradition of shadow-dancing, dancer/choreographer Tadashi Endo appears to manipulate Alceste as she is wrought with jealousy. Endo is feminine, mysterious, and haunting in his faceless role, subtly controlling Alceste's emotions.
Tim Mead successfully adapts to the role of the melodramatic King Admeto. He moves and sings in flowing contralto lines that appropriately fit the libretto and Handel's music while also complementing the appropriated Japanese setting. His seriousness is balanced by some comic relief provided by Trasimede, Admeto’s brother, as played by David Bates, and William Berger as Ercole, the strong and loyal servant whose role is transformed into a comical-looking sumo warrior in this production. Trasimede is in love with Antigona, desperately clinging to her portrait and breathily singing into her ear. Bates is amusing but at times a little over the top, his contralto voice almost annoyingly wailing for Antigona’s attention. Kirsten Blaise as Antigona raises more than a few eyebrows as she responds in not merely a flirtatious, but surprisingly sexual manner, which again seemed a little excessive. But one must keep in mind that the plot itself is a ridiculous tale of Greek melodrama full of 'woe-is-me' solos and the added fanciful plot twists to entertain a Baroque audience, and so perhaps the exaggeration of emotional expression was fitting.
Designer Bernd Lepel, who had previously worked two other major operas with Japanese settings with director Doris Dörrie (Madame Butterfly, Turandot), effectively designed the minimal set with very crisp and clean references to Japanese shoji screens. Portraits play a large role, particularly in Act II, and are depicted as floating transparent, silk-screened hangings of Japanese masks. The hanging portraits are beautifully manipulated by the singers, particularly Antigona who at the end of Act II, drapes herself in Admeto's portrait and enters Act III, completely enveloped in it. In Act II, there is a wonderful moment where the portraits of Antigona and Alceste overlap as Admeto is conflicted by his love for both. Blaise shines in the next scene as she mournfully sings of the pains of the heart. She is perhaps the most convincing in her role as far as technical ability and musical expression are concerned as she is even able to roll around on the floor in Admeto's portrait while still producing clear trills and coloratura.
Different coloured lighting provided the mood for the scenes, not at all distracting from the music or events on stage...that is, not until the third act, where things became slightly confusing. The sudden and oddly placed backdrop of the interior of a palace overlooking formal, classical gardens seemed strange and unnecessary. Perhaps it was meant to be a reminder of the original setting of the libretto which had taken the Greek myth of Admeto and adapted it to the taste of its baroque audience. But then, a rather strange, abstract representation of a chandelier is lowered between Antigona and Admeto as they sing the only duet in the entire opera, which unfortunately was overshadowed by the added stage effects. The combination of the colourful ameba-like lighting prop and the sudden change to a formal, classically ornate set design distracted from the events and added to the confusion of the plot which in typical dramatic fashion, worked its way suddenly to a happy ending. Admeto and Alceste were a happy couple once more as Alceste's tormented shadow slinked off stage. Trasimede, also appeared to have won Antigona in the end, despite the programme synopsis stating that he is unrewarded. The characters come together in the end to sing the final scene behind a screen, as shadows, bringing the opera to a close just as it had begun.
The Festspiel Orchester Göttingen, conducted by Nicholas McGegan were quiet, unassuming, and provided a simple musical foundation to the events on stage. At times, a harpsichord faltered and the cleanness of a line was broken, but for the most part, they fulfilled their role of stability for the performance. Despite the inconsistencies of the final act, this was a remarkably interesting and visually captivating production. Its Japanese setting perhaps further illuminated the themes of death and rebirth, playing upon subtle references to Japanese tradition. It was a beautiful work to watch; what could have perhaps been just another common staging of a Greek myth, turned into something deeply evocative and emotionally stimulating.
Photo Credits: Theodoro Da Silva
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