The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant [Opera in five acts based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s stage play; RTÉ/ENO co-commission: world stage premiere]

Petra von Kant – Stephanie Friede
Valerie von Kant, her mother – Kathryn Harries
Gabriele von Kant, her daughter – Barbara Hannigan
Sidonie von Grasenabb, her friend – Susan Bickley
Karen Thimm, her lover – Rebecca von Lipinski
Marlene, her personal secretary – Linda Kitchen

Orchestra of English National Opera
André de Ridder

Richard Jones – director
Ultz – designer
Mimi Jordan Sherin – lighting designer
Linda Dobell – movement director/choreography

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 September, 2005
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Operas based on, or derived from, plays are hardly an unknown quantity, but when the play in question was also the basis of a cult film, then the issue of context and – by extension – relevance becomes more acute. As his previous operas (“The Intelligence Park” and “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit”) confirm, Gerald Barry does not shy away from a personal, indeed unequivocal approach; the question here is whether such an approach illuminates his subject matter afresh.

And illuminate it needs to, for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film (derived from his own play) “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” is so bound up in the issues and assumptions of its own era as to be a period-piece some three decades on. Of course, its central premise – that the boundary between love and possession is an indefinable one – is in itself timeless, while that of personal success which leads to exploitation of others is hardly likely to go away either. How to infuse both the characters and situation with a meaning beyond the merely ephemeral is the factor that underlies this opera.

Barry’s musical idiom, while having sacrificed none of its distinctiveness or immediacy, is perhaps not ideally suited to this project. The uninhibited unfolding and repetition of ostinato patterns (often in rhythmic unison) in which woodwinds and brass are predominant, and given variety by frequent – and often effective – chordal and cadential changes, guarantees foreground impact but not much in the way of varying the emotional space around the protagonists. Indeed, it is not too hard to imagine large sections of the libretto (Barry sets the whole of Denis Calandra’s engaging English translation of Fassbinder’s play) combined with different spans of music and resulting in a not inappropriate outcome. This is not to deny Barry’s empathy with his characters: rather to question whether his music’s absence of spatial and dynamic perspective serves a larger dramatic expression in this case.

Matters are not entirely helped, if not exactly hindered, by Richard Jones’s staging – which, together with Ultz’s authentic designs, recreates an archetypal ‘bourgeois’ apartment of the early 1970s in terms of décor and furnishing and, as such, only reinforcing the period aspect of the drama. There are some priceless touches – not least the emergence of music as if from the audio system to which Petra turns for her relaxation – and Linda Dobell’s precisely gauged choreography endows the music with the temporal give-and-take it might otherwise lack, but the sense of looking in on a past era is never absent. This increases the alienation effect, as essential to Fassbinder’s conception as to Barry’s rendering of it, but leaves characters high and dry in their self-created zone of conceit.

The all-female cast is a strong one. Above all else, it confirms Stephanie Friede as a leading dramatic soprano, who rises to the challenge of sustaining the title-role – and rarely offstage over the opera’s two hour duration – with a palpable energy and drive. While she does not draw one into the emotional maelstrom that is Petra, she vividly portrays an egoist whose consuming of those around her is outstripped only by the increasingly destructive zeal with which she finally consumes herself.

In this remorseless process, Rebecca von Lipinski is an admirable sidekick – her alternately demure and coquettish Karen giving a vivid account of an initially aimless chancer in life, who is not merely encouraged but positively invited to exploit her benefactor’s vulnerability and expose the façade she presents to herself and others. A character neither sympathetic nor objectionable, in that she goes only as far as she is able and makes no secret of this.

Susan Bickley’s Sidonie is a nicely-observed study in opportune revenge, not hesitating to turn the tables on Petra once the latter’s absence of self-control is made clear, while Barbara Hannigan manages to dispatch the coloratura central to the role of Gabriele and still convey the sense of being the only real victim of Petra’s actions. Kathryn Harries makes a strong but not especially credible impression as Valerie, transformed from reliance on her daughter’s success (as a fashion designer) at the start of the opera to a moral factotum condemning the decadence of her existence. Fassbinder made this work through the sheer perversity of his ‘moral’ outlook, but Barry, by choosing not to affirm any such standpoint, allows it to remain an inconsequential aside.

There can be nothing but praise for the conducting of André de Ridder, his ENO debut an undoubted success. Without at all undermining the visceral nature of Barry’s orchestral writing, he gives shape to the pulsating rhythms and derives ongoing momentum from the dynamic onslaught that, whether or not he believes in the music as such, has the hallmarks of a true professional. And the orchestral contribution comes into its own when delineating the character of Marlene – a silent role taken with evident conviction by Linda Kitchen, whose submissiveness as Petra’s personal secretary gradually transmutes into nervous collapse as her ‘master’ succumbs to her own demons; finally giving way to breakdown when asked by Petra to “tell me about your life”. The degree of pathos released puts all of the previous goings-on into a more disturbed and disturbing perspective – suggesting that if Barry had been intending all along to create the darkest of black comedies, he might just have succeeded.

  • The performance reviewed took place on 20 September 2005, the first night having been 16 September
  • Performances on September 23 & 29, and October 1, 4 & 7, all at 7.30
  • 1 October performance broadcast live on BBC Radio 3
  • Box Office: 0870 145 0200
  • English National Opera

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