In the 18th-century the word virtuoso had yet to become unmoored from its root: virtue. Those accorded the status of a virtuosomeant not only these respected musician had cultivated a discerning taste and had developed wide-ranging knowledge both theoretical and practical, but that he (or, very occasionally, she) unfailingly pursued an altruistic attitude towards music and other musicians. Only in the 19th-century did the likes of Liszt and Paganini weigh ethical anchor, and commandeer virtuosity as they pursued their cult of personality. Since then the term has flown the flamboyant colors of pure showmanship. But for many the technically impressive displays of these demonic virtuosos were as dubious as the moral character of the performers themselves.
Similarly, opera was often praised as an integrated school for the arts encompassing music, painting, architecture, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. Although opera houses hosted innumerable debauchery, especially in the loges of the rich and powerful, high-minded defenders of the art preached its higher ethical purpose, even against the perennial jeremiads of Christian clerics. The lofty lessons of serious, as opposed to comic, opera enacted on stage must have made sinning in such proximity all the more thrilling.
When the bad guys win in opera—as in the amoral conclusion of the early operatic masterpiece, Monteverdi’s Il coronazione die Poppea—one can decry their negative example, even while secretly cheering their success, imagining what it might be like to fill one’s sails and follow the sinners to the horizon, and once there decide whether to cross the wind again into the dark side.
Only on the most extreme occasions do brimstoners fill the void long since vacated by their Christian clergymen, as when, six years ago, Muslim clerics fulminated against the production of Mozart’s Idomeneo at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper because the director, Hans Neuenfels, had beheaded the Prophet Mohammed (a character Neunfels added to the antique drama) and have his trophy put on a stake. True, the other great monotheist Jesus met a similarly gory fate on that stage, but Christian preachers long ago gave up bothering much with opera, especially in Berlin, where sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll have been domesticated and rendered as polite and acceptable as an intermission glass of champagne.
The latest contribution to operatic shock therapy in one of Berlin’s three opera houses comes once again from that virtuoso of transgression, Spanish director Calixto Bieito, in the form of his new production of Gluck’s Armida. Bieito was last invited north to the German capital five years ago when he crafted a version of Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail which sought to lay bare the violent misogyny underlying the very notion of a harem. He converted the luxuriant baths and boudoirs of the east into neon-lighted brothels evocative of Amsterdam’s red light district. The director packed his production with shocking images and ideas: he put real prostitutes in display cases, already strutting their stuff as the audience took their seats before the overture; he had the evil Bassa Selim piss in a champagne glass and make his henchman drink it; Bieito staged a snuff sex scene; he stuffed the heroine, Konstanza, in a tiny cage on wheels and led her around on a leash. That was perhaps the most lasting, though by no means the most vicious, image depicting the subjugation of women that Bieito offere. He concluded the proceedings with Sam Peckinpah-style fusillade, drenching what is generally treated as harmlessly exotic romance, in gallons of stage blood. There were more than few vocal objections and huffy exits already in the first act, and some “Pfuis” from the audience at the end. But in general it was taken as a bracing, if occasionally extreme, interpretation of a beloved classic.
At a post-performance roundtable discussion at the Komische Oper after last week’s festival performance of Gluck’s Armida, Bieito admitted that he hated the Entführung libretto. The admission hardly came as surprise to those who’d seen the production, for Bieito had played mighty rough with Mozart’s Entführung. Yet the work emerged from the ring a changed being, battered and bruised, but still standing in all its damaged glory. Bieito brilliantly exposed the story’s underlying brutality, up till then clothed in the gleaming raiment of Mozart’s music: Bieito made the point that not everything can or should be beautified by song, for that too is a kind of distortion, and a potentially dangerous one at that. True the evening was not without some collateral damage to the body of the text and the sensibilities—and even intelligence—of the audience, but it was gripping theatre.
Quasi-explicit sex and violence are relative newcomers to the opera stage, having followed Hollywood there like a dog dragged along by a very long lead. Even more effective at drawing people in to the once rarefied world of Europe, is plain old full frontal nudity. Bieito’s directorial hand disrobes human bodies as easily as he strips off the lacquer from dramatic texts. In the Entführung it was female nudity, mostly topless that was on parade; in Armida, a piece dominated by a powerful female, the male body basked and frolicked, in Franck Evin’s bright and exacting stage lighting, one of the most dramatic features of this dramatic evening. More often, however, Bieito’s nude young men were beaten and humiliated and even strangled with the cord of a phone—a wonderfully anachronistic touch, and far more dramaturgically effective than bludgeoning the love slave with an iPhone. These troupe, meant to represent the captured battalions of the crusaders, were more than likely corralled from local gyms where Berlin’s native nautilus youth worship themselves. These guys got their own back later in the opera. Once freed from their high-rent dungeon, the Christian slackers bashed in through one of the side doors to the Parterre with a mighty and frightening bang after the intermission. Now clad in trendy street rags, the louts shouted “Bitch” at Armida up on stage. She would get the last laugh, however, with multiple gunshots to their leader Rinaldo. I assumed Bieito would have her turn the gun on herself, but then I remembered that Konstanza had blown her own brains out in the same stage few years back in that infamous Entfuhrung. Bieito is too clever and ingenious a director to pull out the same gag on the same stage for two operas composed within a few years of one another.
So pervasive is nudity in his Berlin work and so seemingly gimmicky is Bieito’s repertoire of directorial flourishes that one is tempted to dismiss his seemingly extreme interventions in revered works of the past as the Emperor’s New Clothes. Each action—from brandishing a chain or whip for the obligatory sado-machoistic purposes, to rearranging or wrecking the furniture—is seemingly freighted with a meaning that should be obvious but is often opaque. You want to see what the Emperor sees, but sometimes have a hard time convincing yourself that there’s anything there.
But it would be a lazy mistake to Bieito’s work as pointless, if titillating, illusion. He takes these pieces seriously and has something, indeed many things, worthwhile to say about them. Provocation is not an end in itself, but a means for new appreciation.
What is so extraordinary about Armida is how completely the lead character, an infidel sorceress of Jerusalem dominates the drama. It is her opera, almost the entire three hours of it. The lead male part is not given the heroic dimension the Christian knight Rinaldo might have demanded; Peter Lordahl delivered his music with adequate brashness and grasped the few fleeting moments of real feeling that could be mustered by the caddish crusader; Lordahl’s serviceable work was, perhaps inadvertently, well-tuned to the dramatic subservience it plays to that of Armida.
Bieito takes deadly seriously, even for the occasional detours into willy-waggling frivolity, the essence of the opera as belonging to, or better dominated by, the troubled anti-heroine. His blonde heroine in brilliant blue mini-skirt and similarly sculpted top of matching hue strode to the apron before the overture began, memories of the glass-cased hookers from his Enführung still fresh in many memories.
With an icy, resilient stare and a menacing, forward-leaning stance, the Swedish soprano, Maria Bengtsson, made clear that this was all about her. It was only frosting on the cake that she can really sing.
Gluck gave to his tortured heroine vast stretches of psychologically complex song—elegant, immediate, and in the often simplified musical language of the later 18th-century. But this prevailing simplicity allows each glinting dissonance to cut more sharply, each sighing appoggiatura to gasp more pathetically, each unison exhortation to surge more passionately, and each gripping modulation to grab the listener more forcefully. Gluck’s musical emotion ranges from the interior and poignant to the spectacular and climactic. The title role especially demands a singer capable of harnessing the opera’s expressive power without smothering it in affectation. Bengtsson is the perfect dominatrix of Gluckian song: she binds the listener with immense subtlety, and chooses her moments to tighten the restraints, as in the climactic closing number in the opera’s final scene with its violent orchestral thrusts and tortured vocal outpourings. Renouncing love she releases the shackles with devastating abandon. Bengtsson’s voice projects tortured emotions so powerfully by always remaining impeccably in control. The mere suggestion of desperation in the voice is like molten lava.
Armida’s calamity is that she has fallen in love with an invader. Try as she might to resist her urges she cannot. She does not want to be subject to her emotions and certainly not to a man, and in the third act summons Hate to help her retain her independence and womanly pride in the face of her sexual attraction for the foreigner. Bieito’s Hate came in the form of the abundant blond tresses of soprano Maria Gortsevskaya, dressed in a modern black frock coat, white skirt and man’s black tie. The androgynous costume brought out the Marlene Dietrich features of the singer’s face and attitude. She sang the part with a viper’s precision and volatility, almost calm and calculating, before the deadly strike. For her meeting with Hate Armida had been retrofitted with an 18th-century ballgown. After dishing out lessons in self-hatred, Armida lay back on her fashion-statement sofa, and Hate pulled up the sorceresses’ hoops and pleased her orally as Armida pleased us sonically, in an orgy of song. The scene played like a combination of voyeurism and eavesdropping, Armida’s song closer to the skin than the sexual act portrayed on stage. In Bieito’s musical theatre, no one, not even in the audience, is left untouched.
None of this I found particularly sexy, but the point of the production, at least as Bieito would have it, was to investigate the piece as equal parts erotic dream and nightmare. Just as Gluck’s sublime dissonances fight against and then yield to the desire for release, so too does Bieito’s Armida struggle against her own yearnings. The musical dynamic of resistance and surrender found a memorable, if not always convincing theatrical representation, under Bieito’s direction.
What was lost among Bieito’s provocative and illuminating ruminations and strikingly visual sense was dance. Ballet was crucial to Gluck’s operatic reforms. The role of dancing in these operas was wonderfully re-imagined in Mark Morris’s Met production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice from this past spring. The sinuous set of dances were moved from the middle of act of act four to the its beginning, so as to provide a kind of second overture after the intermission. This fine music, and the coquettish Musette with its endlessly pulsing middle Cs in the basoons, was given over to a bikini-briefed snake handler, onanistically fondling his giant white python—a circus act standing in for artfully elegant, or even ingeniously depraved, choreography of any kind. The exquisite Sicilienne of act five, which proceeds with such immense fragility that you dread it will break apart even before it too disappears as all music must, was reduced to background sound for a leather clad scene of same-sex groping and sodomy stage left, and, stage right, a young man making love to a woman whose age I’d estimate somewhere beyond sixty. This couple appeared throughout the evening, most acrobatically with her on a swing and him below, performing oral sex on his partner while holding himself with two hands and flexed arms to her seat, dangling high above the stage. I think this pair was meant to represent untroubled physical love as opposed to the sensual war raging inside Armida. Perhaps the most revolutionary touch of the evening: that the only naked woman seen on stage was old enough to be the grandmother to any of the two dozens naked men. But in all these dance pieces, Gluck deserved better, and so did his music. In the ballet music, even more than in the searching arias and fiery recitatives, the opera orchestra und conductor Konrad Junghänel’s exacting and impassioned direction could be heard at its most refined and persuasive, and this only worsened the on-stage foolishness it accompanied.
Ironically, Bieito’s Armida, like his Entführung before it,was one of the most morally uncompromising productions one could imagine, and while I’m generally bored stiff by sermons, secular or sacred, his latest production was provocative and unforgettable. Many fiery sermon of yore and more than a few evangelical ones of today thrive on the conjuring of lurid scenes, and the powerful repressions, or perhaps suppression, of these temptations. Bieito’s sermon did not banish fantasy and sin, but gave them free rein. His message was: woman, don’t give into man. As the stage machinery carried Armida back from her apartment balcony—the updated version of her chariot—from Rinaldo’s freshly murdered body sprawled below, one could see what Bieito meant. If only more operatic women took matters into their own hands with the steely, uncompromising beauty of Bieito’s Armida, that greatest virtuosa of the emotions, as enthralled by herself as we are of her!
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com