Berlin's Rock-Era `Orfeo'

Komische Oper version of the Greek myth turns the hero into a rock singer. WORLD OPERA

THE Komische Oper, in what was until recently East Berlin, is probably known to anyone who has followed the performance history of opera in Europe since World War II. Formerly one had to travel to Berlin to experience this company. Its first Western tour took it to London in the summer of 1989, and comprised three operas, including artistic director Harry Kupfer's much-discussed 1987 production of Gluck's ``Orfeo ed Euridice'' (or ``Orpheus und Eurydike'' as presented in German by the company).

Now the Komische Oper has traveled across the Atlantic with their version of ``Orfeo,'' and settled into the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) for a four-performance run that ends Sunday.

What established the company's reputation almost from the beginning was its fanatical attention to theatrical detail. Artistic director Walter Felsenstein, named head of the new company in 1947, was known to stress long rehearsals to arrive at a dramatic level that had little to do with the stand-and-pose style so standard in most opera houses around the world. Kupfer, only the third artistic director the company has had - he took over in 1981 - has continued the idea of opera as theater, and in this updated ``Orfeo,'' the theater is a persistent image.

This BAM run marks Kupfer's staging debut in the United States. It is clearly long overdue. Active in European houses since 1972, he has developed the reputation of an uncompromising visionary who insists on staging only those operas he can make relevant to today. His work has been seen in many of the major German houses, including the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, and also in Vienna. (Just recently he demanded his name be removed from a production of Strauss's ``Elektra'' because he was not even offered the chance to rehearse a substationally new cast in his intricate staging.)

While in Berlin, I had a chance to ask Kupfer how the city's unification - and the need to support three major opera companies - will affect the Komische Oper. He noted that under the unified government, the subsidy remains basically the same as under the old East German government - i.e., just as small. ``Now our fight is that the subsidies should be raised to the Western level.'' As for the Komische Oper joining the large family of unified Berlin theaters, there are big problems down the road. ``We fight for the Komische Oper,'' Kupfer explains, ``and we have only one problem, that our quality evening to evening on stage has to be so good that our theater is needed for Berlin and for Germany. That is the only problem we have!''

As for controversy, he clearly does not fear it; rather, he expects strong reactions and knows that if a production stays in peak form, he can get those reactions night after night. So when I asked how much this ``Orfeo'' has changed since 1987, he answered immediately, ``Not one part we changed.'' Of course the staging keeps being rehearsed. ``The audience who comes to us in the 50th, 60th, 80th performance pays the same money like the people in the first performance and they want the same quality, and we want to give them the same quality.''

Certainly this German-language ``Orpheus und Eurydike'' (with English surtitles at BAM), as seen in Berlin last month, has the flavor of something fresh and vital. Hans Schavernoch's set is quite simple: Two walls of mylar that are now transparent, now reflective, sit on a turntable and serve - along with a rear scrim - as screens for the almost incessant flow of projected images.

The milar walls also function as mirrors that sometimes pick up the actors, and just as often the audience watching the production. In the Komische Oper auditorium, with its baroque ornaments, the image is particularly striking of a modern audience watching a modern staging in a decidedly period auditorium.

The manner in which ``Orfeo'' is staged strips the story of all its Greek- mythology trappings, and brings it compellingly into the 20th century, circa 1980, with the hero as rock singer - today's image of a musician with untold powers of communication, and with all the lifestyle excesses that the rock world conjures. Kupfer is able to create a gripping study of the musician as communicator, of the artist and the personal cost of his art, and the nature of love and the perception of reality in an increasingly hostile and hallucinogenic world. A key to creating the mood is the action of the turntable: The images whirl by as it spins to the right and left, creating the effect of a brilliantly controlled maelstrom of images and spectacular lighting effects.

Jochen Kowalski, for whom Kupfer mounted this production, is a remarkable male alto who is also an unusually engaging - if hyperactive - stage performer. Where countertenors usually favor a vibrato-less, hooty vocal production with no real power or passion, Kowalski throws himself into the role as if one possessed. In truth, he refers to the role as his Tristan, and he is so integral a part of this production, that if he cannot sing for some reason, Kupfer cancels the evening's performance. Throughout the ``Orfeo'' I heard, his singing was unsettlingly magnificent, and he proves to be as unique an artist as the Orfeo he creates on stage.

Euridice is portrayed by Dagmar Schellenberger-Ernst, an uncommonly attractive woman with wonderful stage presence. Christiane Oertel is the Amor, and Hartmut Haenchen presides over the proficient Komische Oper orchestra and excellent chorus in a performance of the compact, 90-minute one-act 1762 Vienna version.

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