COSI AT E WERK, Berlin
E Werk, more correctly ewerk, is the oldest preserved commercial power plant in Germany. Located in Berlin-Mitte, after the Wende (reunification) it was home for house music and Techno nights, its fame spreading all over Europe. Then it was closed once again and reopened two years ago after renewals.
Before its doors were closed, conductor and stage director Christoph Hagel put there on scene Mozart’s Don Giovanni staged so that high culture mixed with Technoszene.
Before Hagel’s name came up once more in 2008 with Zauberflöte in der U-Bahn located in a Berlin underground station, which was talked about in whole Europe.
Now the dynamic conductor comes back to ewerk with this special Così fan tutte/Sex, Lügen & TV, from last November to next January.
Just from the simple new title one can realize, it’s not the ‘usual’ Mozart opera, as we all know and love. It’s something more and something less at the same time, and there’s no use in comparing it to ‘the original’ with the usual canons, either musically nor for the mere staging, it’s not even a real opera. It has been rewritten (by co-author Andreas Haß) to satirize today’s TV world and its cynicism in using human feelings to create sensation and in taking advantage of ‘normal’ people’s longing for fame when they take part to TV shows.
Spoken parts have been rewritten and put in the place of recitatives, so that the performance looks more as a musical – with a wonderful score. To big surprise the new stage situations fit like a glove to the original plot, and the characters seems respected in their psychologies and reactions.
To the original six protagonists, a new one has been added: it’s the Showmaster, played by Alfred Biolek, a TV entertainer and talk-shows host very popular in Germany. In the last years he had his own TV cookshow, and now he can add this new theatre experience to his artistic life.
That said, it’s the moment to tell something about the new plot: two couples –Doro and Leon and Mandy with her Kevin- are about to marry and take part in the TV Show, Così fan tutte, where they can win a 100.000 Euro marriage. The plain game is not enough for keeping high audience at home, so the producer proposes to the two guys to raise the prize to 1.000.000 Euros, if they accept to play a trick to the girls
. They just must pretend to leave suddenly for military reasons (they both are in the army) and come back in disguise, and then convince Mandy and Doro to marry them, each one courting the other’s girl.
Unaware and upset, the girls would put an end to the game, but they can’t because of the huge penalty they would have to pay.
From this point on the plot goes on more or less as we know it, with the successful courting. The boys make believe to be dying (they had to grasp a wedding ring hidden in a tank with a poisonous snake in it), the fake marriage held by a Despina looking like Angela Merkel, and so on.
The limit is that the play intends to take fun on TV world as it is today, but doing so it uses the same mediatic language. Yes, it is fun and hits the target, but sometimes its humour seems easy and superficial, just TV style.
This ambiguity is explained by Hagel himself in the program. He writes that Così fan tutte in the centuries was blamed to be silly and meaningless, and that only a new libretto could rescue the opera from his superficiality. Wrong, says Hagel: with a subtle remark he says that what may seem superficial unveils its deepness through Mozart’s music. So, this new TV-like setting makes it young and topical again.
Something works particularly well – as for instance the ‘behind the scene’ where Leon seduces Doro. A hidden camera is there to take the whole scene: a great occasion to show some real ‘common people’ sex on TV. It will also be the undeniable proof of infedility that will put Ferrando/Kevin with his back against the wall.
If in this work there were lights and shadows, the musical side was not on the sunny side. Not one of the young artists is to blame, but the fact that the performance was amplified! This was a surprise, even because the small size of the hall should balance the bad acustic.
Obviously the target is not the usual opera audience, nevertheless is difficult to understand why even a ‘new’ audience can’t listen properly to an opera.
So there’s no much to say once reported the genuine enthusiasm of the Berliner Symphoniker’s young musicians, and how evident was the commitment of conductor/director Hagen on both sides. We can just add that the orchestra has answered properly to the constantly speed times imposed by the conductor and fitting the spirit of the performance.
Often, and specially at the beginning, the musical parts are changed in their order.
The first real opera number is the duet between the two sisters, in german, followed by the men’s terzetto in alterate order: first E’ la fede delle femmine, then La mia Dorabella.
More than this, what didn’t seem really effective was to have some part sung in Italian and others in German. Maybe Haß has left in original language where Da Ponte’s libretto wasn’t changed, but doing so, the home audience was deprived of understanding much of what was sung.
So we had in Italian Soave sia il vento and Smanie implacabili, as well as Un’aura amorosa and Come scoglio, postponed with no benefit at the place of Fiordiligi’s rondò Per pietà ben mio perdona.
Main cuts included Act I finale’s repeat, Despina’s Una donna a quindici anni and also Bella vita militar, whose theme was only played by the orchestra, being no chorus.
Such a performance needs proper singers both on the vocal and physical side; and being on stage every evening, there are two different casts which alternate.
Dorothee Schlemm (Doro/Dorabella) was among the best on stage. Her mezzo is rich, with warm full voice and she showed the right expressivity joining irony and temperament. She was able to make the small Smanie implacabili a great moment, but also the seduction duet with Guglielmo was very effective.
Carola Reischenbach (Mandy/Fiordiligi) stayed well into play with her acting, but she seemed somehow more austere, as if she waits to be a ‘real’ Fiordiligi and leave Mandy in ewerk. Her voice, although thin, is well used and she showed great care in her preparation.
Between the two fiancées, Serge Novique (Leon/Guglielmo) looked more at ease, while Alexander Geller’s Kevin/Ferrando was more conventional in his characterization.
Vocally both the young singers were good, Novique has a round and homogenous baritone while Geller showed only some nasal sound in’Un’aura amorosa’.
Carrie Dimaculangan has been a funny and amused Despina, specially sexy as Red Cross nurse to assist the poor gentlemen in final act 1
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. Roland Zeidler was Don Alfonso Burlesconi (sic) very natural on stage but not so when singing – his voice wasn’t always well supported so that he was the weak point in the Terzetto with the two sisters.
Alfred Biolek seems to have fun with this stage experience as Showmaster from the beginning to the final when –really in TV style joke- he puts into pocket the 1.000.000 Euro prize taking it away from the young men’s hands. In the closing film he shows to find comfort together with Despina on a tropical island, in the arms of a native hunk.
The house was not full, but at the end the audience didn’t spare applause.
One could think that sublime Mozart’s music was reduced to a soundtrack for a superficial funny musical comedy. So, the old charge comes back: Così fan tutte is just a silly work, even in a modern TV-style dress.
Is it really so?
The answer is in Hagel’ìs words: ‘Just set ‘mute’ on your TV set and turn on Mozart’s music: suddenly what you see on the screen will have a new meaning…’