Bergen International Festival 2009 [Die Dreigroschenoper, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, The Rite of Spring]

Written by: Peter Reed

Die Dreigroschenoper [Threepenny Opera] – A play with music in three acts to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht, based on the translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann of The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay with interpolated ballads by François Villon & Rudyard Kipling [sung in German]

Peachum – Jurgen Holtz
Mrs Peachum – Traute Hoess
Polly Peachum – Christina Drechsler
Macheath – Stefan Kurt
Tiger Brown – Axel Werner
Lucy – Gitte Reppin
Jenny – Angela Winkler
Filch – Georgios Tsivanoglou

Berliner Ensemble
Hans-Jorn Brandenburg

Robert Wilson – Director, set and lighting design
Jacques Reynaud – Costumes

Den Nazionale Scene
Saturday 30 May 2009

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – Opera in one act to a libretto by Béla Balázs after the story by Charles Perrault
The Rite of Spring

Judith – Katarina Karneus
Bluebeard – Alberg Dohmens

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Thursday 28 May 2009

Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, Op.63
String Duo in G, K423
Serenade in C for string trio, Op.10

Razumovsky Ensemble [Henning Kraggerud (violin), Lars Anders Tomter (viola) & Oleg Kogan (cello)]

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Friday 29 May 2009

Françaix, Hindemith & Falla

Tine Thing Helseth (trumpet) & Christian Ihle Hadland (piano)

Young Nordic Platform
Troldsalen, Troldhaugen
Friday 29 May 2009

Schumann, Rihm & Schubert

Tobias Berndt (baritone) & Alexander Fleicher (piano)

Young Nordic Platform
Troldsalen, Troldhaugen
Sunday 31 May 2009

The 57-year-old Bergen Festival has developed into one of Europe’s great post-war culture-fests. Norway’s second city is a major port and gateway to the magnificent fjords, and its harbour has a pretty spectacular setting, too. The city has that strange febrile atmosphere that marks out the high north, where spring and summer are short and intense with long and intoxicating daylight hours.

As well as its theatres – including the staggering Art Nouveau building Den Nazionale Scene and halls and churches – the city has the excellent Bergen Philharmonic, and its own opera company, Den Nye Opera. The two-week festival was packed densely and featured many fringe events, including a very strange sound-piece that boomed round the city, angelus-style, in the early evening.

One of this year’s biggest events was a revival of Robert Wilson’s Berliner Ensemble staging of Kurt Weill‘s Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) at Den Nazionale Scene (30 May to 2 June). This was Wilson’s ultra-glossy and appropriately heart-less re-working for Bertold Brecht’s own company of Brecht and Weill’s equally heart-less and bleak appraisal of all that was cynical and subversive about the Weimar Republic. It was like seeing Otto Dix’s spiky, grotesque drawings reinvented for our similarly hard-faced, economically challenged times.

Make-up was deathly pale, the costumes pointedly bizarre and designed to make an impact in silhouette, the lighting brilliantly incisive and pitiless, and movement and choreography micro-managed down to the last detail. Its slick, high-camp stylisation, full of overwrought gestures, created its own world so successfully that it kept any emotional response at one remove. Various Norwegians in the audience lamented the absence of surtitles, and the actors’ crisply enunciated German seemed to marmorealise the work’s iconic subversiveness and reinforce Wilson’s atmosphere of contrived detachment.

Stefan Kurt looked like a sexually ambiguous cross between Dietrich and Joel Gray’s MC in Cabaret, and gave the role a finely judged and steely fragility. Angela Winkler stole the show with her distracted, amoral Jenny, an outrageously loopy creation, and her disembodied, flutey singing was intriguingly odd. Alex Werner’s Tiger Brown would have fitted the Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s Riff-Raff like a glove, and there was an impressively grotesque Mrs Peachum from Traute Hoess. Gang-leader Peachum was represented as a Jewish money-lender – perhaps Wilson was referring back to stock theatre caricatures at the time; Die Dreigroschenoper was first staged in 1928.

With its high production values and stylish work from the musicians, this was precision-engineered cabaret – but only to be looked at, not touched by.

As far as involvement was concerned, there was Bartók‘s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (28 May), in the Grieghallen, in a gripping performance from Katarina Karneus, Albert Dohmen, the Bergen Philharmonic and its music director, Andrew Litton. The work was a first, both for Karneus and Litton, and the freshness of their approach gave this smouldering, mysterious masterpiece a compelling urgency. Litton’s grasp of the work’s parallel lives as an opera and as a ‘concerto for orchestra’, showcasing each of the seven doors, was assured, and the playing world-class. He had an intuitive understanding of the ebb and flow of Bluebeard’s and Judith’s psychological ascendancy, and ensured that we heard the magnificent music for the fifth door as the hollow victory it really is. The slide back into Bluebeard’s impenetrable isolation was dark and hopeless.

Katarina Karneus gave Judith, a role easily portrayed as an intransigent harpy, subtlety and range of nuance, and she judged perfectly the balancing act of Judith as a character and Judith as a feminine prototype. Albert Dohnen, a notable Wotan, brought a similar brooding intensity to Bluebeard, with rock-solid tone and delivery – again, a highly perceptive interpretation that projected the character as myth.

Bergen’s tireless artistic director Per Boye Hansen preented Stravinsky‘s The Rite of Spring with a screening of Oliver Herrmann’s 2004 film, originally recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle. Herrmann’s film is a surreal fantasy about the effects of divine intervention on the fractured lives of three troubled characters, far removed from the ballet’s original scenario of a virgin dancing herself to death. The film’s overwrought imagery could not help but relegate Stravinsky’s possessed music to the role of a soundtrack, and the fact that Litton had to keep his eye both on the score and on the film’s cue monitor guaranteed a constrained rather than an explosive performance.

There was a very well-stocked programme of other concerts and recitals. Leif Ove Andsnes was soloist with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and he accompanied Matthias Goerne in a song recital and gave a fiery performance of Schumann‘s Piano Trio No.1 (Håkonshallen, 29 May), with members of the Wigmore Hall-based Razumovsky Ensemble, in a programme that also included Mozart‘s Duo K423 and Serenade for string trio by Ernő Dohnányi. Andnes is also director of the Risør Festival, another jewel in Norway’s festival crown.

At the Troldsalen, the beautiful recital room with the same fjord view as Grieg’s composing hut, next to his summer house Troldhauugen, there were several recitals from the Young Nordic Platform. The brilliant trumpet player Tine Thing Helseth was heard in programme of Françaix, Hindemith and Falla; her accompanist was Christian Ihle Hadland.

The young German baritone Tobias Berndt gave a mesmerising recital of Schumann, Rihm and Schubert, in which every restrained physical gesture and vocal inflexion created an astonishingly intense performance style, reflected in Alexander Fleicher’s poised and responsive accompaniment; such a still, focussed “Du bist die Ruh” was a wonder.

Next year’s plans include a Schumann series directed by Nikolaj Znaider and a production of the opera Anne Pedersdotter (who was burnt for witchcraft in Bergen in 1590) by the Norwegian composer Edvard Fliflet Bræin (1924-76).

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