[Dixielandjazz] Sex & Violence

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu Jul 22 10:27:39 PDT 2004

And we thought Rap, Rock and Howard Stern were over the top. What's
next? Acid Dixieland? ;-) VBG

July 21, 2004 - NY Times


Berlin Tarts Up Opera With Sex and Violence

      BERLIN, July 20 — In many quarters opera still maintains an image
as genteel and civilized entertainment, but that stereotype was long ago
jettisoned in this thrill-seeking city. Directors here, it seems, seldom
meet an opera that a little sex and over-the-top violence can't fix.

This impression was supported by two forays this month into the dark
heart of the Berlin opera world: Philipp Himmelmann's production of
Verdi's "Don Carlo" at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, and Calixto
Bieito's widely reported staging of Mozart's "Abduction From the
Seraglio" at the Komische Oper. Packed houses at both performances
suggest that these directors have hit on a successful box-office
formula, though the artistic results were less consistent, ranging from
the questionably disturbing to the merely tasteless.

Let's begin with Mr. Himmelmann's production of "Don Carlo" in its
four-act Italian version. The director and his set designer (Johannes
Leiacker) have unobtrusively updated this popular Verdi opera and given
it an attractively spare and modern look, with most of the action taking
place around a regal dining room table placed against a dark black
background. The first bizarre touch, however, comes in the first act as
Princess Eboli's ladies-in-waiting have been inexplicably transformed
into a squad of secret agents who stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the
front of the stage, attaching silencers to their handguns and pointing
at the audience.

Don't bother wondering. It's nonsensical but still innocuous compared
with the sheer brutality of the second act auto-da-fé. Over the course
of this lengthy scene, the king feasts serenely on a banquet as five
bound infidels lie naked and quivering in front of his table.
Executioners duct tape the mouths of the captives and then slowly douse
them with gasoline. They are then strung up by their ankles and hoisted
high in the air, spinning precariously as they go. The executioners
spark their lighters, raising them up toward their dangling prey as the
curtain falls.

The persistent question is why? Why this flight into such sadistic
realism in a production that otherwise allowed for suggestion and
subtlety? It's as if Mr. Himmelmann did not trust that the work would be
sufficiently dramatic without such a harrowing spectacle. Or perhaps he
knew such a stunt would draw press attention, which it has.

But if spectacle was the goal, Mr. Himmelmann was soundly outdone by Mr.
Bieito, the Catalan director who has moved Mozart's "Abduction" from a
Turkish harem to a modern-day Berlin brothel with transparent walls.
There is enough onstage sex and nudity to make the golden calf orgy in
the Met's production of "Moses and Aaron" seem like a Sunday school

But that's just the beginning. The Pasha Salim drags the captured
heroine Konstanze around on a leash and locks her in a cage. Osmin slits
the throat and cuts off the nipples of a prostitute. There is rape and
masturbation, drugs, suicide and the drinking of urine. The cumulative
effect of it all was so numbing that by the time our hero Belmonte
gunned down the all the prostitutes, scarcely a boo was heard.

The final results do not add up to theatrical daring or the demolishing
of clichés. Mr. Bieito's "Abduction" is simply a prolonged and tasteless
exercise hard to take seriously. His highest priorities seem to be
shocking the audience, receiving publicity and strengthening his
reputation as a bad boy of European opera. He may have achieved all

An intelligently radical staging would of course be welcome, but any
directorial concept must build outward from a basic and deep connection
with the music itself. Mr. Bieito appears much more concerned with his
own external concept — exposing the ills of the modern sex trade and the
power relationships between men and women — than he is with Mozart, and
he never convinces the viewer that the two are actually compatible.

He has, in other words, ignored or silenced the composer's voice
altogether, so that the radiant music and its Enlightenment message
become a mere interruption of the mise-en-scène. And to guarantee that
attention doesn't wander during the arias, Mr. Bieito places giant video
screens on the wings of the stage, looping through slow sensual imagery
like what you might find in a perfume ad.

As for the singing at these two events, "Don Carlo" was buoyed by René
Pape, who gave a sonically thrilling and dramatically complex
performance as King Philip. His dueling-bass confrontation scene with
Kwangchul Youn as a fearsome grand inquisitor was the musical highlight
of the week. In "Abduction," the standout was Maria Bengtsson as a
nimble and pure-voiced Konstanze.

All the singers in the Mozart deserve credit for managing to ply their
craft under these circumstances, which sometimes included physical and
sexual trials in midaria. Fabio Luisi conducted the Verdi, and Kirill
Petrenko led the Mozart.

So will the spectacle trend continue? Certainly yes in the short term,
because it sells well. Not only were houses full, but the audience at
each event was surprisingly cooperative if a bit sheepish at the Mozart.
It was as if musically inclined Berliners simply appreciated being at
the epicenter of operatic audacity, as they once were during the musical
golden age of the 1920's. Not all audacity, however, is equally

Indeed, the quest for this kind of spectacle cannot last, if only
because scandal is not a renewable resource. Whatever remaining taboos
exist in the opera house can be broken only so many times before this
approach becomes a parody of itself. That process may already have

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