THE TSAR/THE CLEVER WOMAN • OPER FRANKFURT
REVIEW THE TSAR WANTS HIS PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN/ THE CLEVER WOMAN: DELIGHTFULLY ABSURD OPERA MODERNISM IN FRANKFURT
Keith Warner’s Frankfurt staging of two modernist operas is at the same time delightful boulevard theater and rewarding, narrow musical drama in a production design that takes most people’s breath away.
Kurt Weil’s The Tsar Wants his Photograph taken is the first part of this double bill at Frankfurt Opera, which continues to maintain absolute excellence in the house’s productions.
The Tsar opens with a bang in a gaudy round-arched set, with portraits of famous heads of state scattered on openable trapdoors, almost like a Christmas calendar.
The clappers fly up at a sudden orchestral crescendo, revealing scary skeleton heads blowing the violent intro at full force right into the audience’s heads. That’s when you woke up!
With a portrait photo-atelier set-up placed on the revolving stage in the center, the set design alternates between providing space for the action in progress – and perspective tableaux of famous assassinations.
Still life of Tsar Romanov with his wife and five children, killed by bullets and bayonets, covered in blood on a gorgeous white photo background, JFK on a podium at his birthday with Marilyn Monroe in a tight-fitting silver sequined dress by his side – and Julius Caesar emphatically stabbed, surrounded by the miscreants wearing bloody tunics in a frozen snapshot pose.
The Tsar Wants his Photograph Taken is a delightful little one-act play of a light-hearted nature that reminds me of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.
It’s about a Tsar (read any tyrannical despot) who is attempted to be assassinated by revolutionary rebels while taking photos in the studio of a fashionable French photographer.
The rebels hijack the studio, insert a look-alike understudy for the photographer – and place a gun in the camera housing, ready for a shot that turns out a little differently than the Tsar had envisioned.
Quite a delightful, modern opera buffa detail in just 50 minutes, which turns comical as the Tsar is more interested in getting into the photographer’s panties than in the actual picture that will enshrine him in the ranks of celebrities portrayed.
As part of the piquant flirtation, he even insists on switching roles with the photographer, handcuffing her to the portrait chair, only to go behind the camera himself and joke about pressing the shutter button….
Tabloid opera, the genre is also called, with a good term I didn’t know.
The assassination plot is foiled, the rebels disappear, and the real photographer can return to the studio unharmed, unaware of the gun in the camera housing. The Tsar, who hasn’t quite grasped what has been going on around him, still wants his portrait taken…
Kurt Weil, well known for his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, wrote this fine piece in 1928 – a fun, musical work in the composer’s usual intense style, with its almost circus/cabaret-like tonal language
As the false photographer, soprano Juanita Lasacarro is a vocal and dramatic treat. The Tsar is just as deftly portrayed by the Slovenian baritone Domen Krizaj. It is a wonderful performance that should find its way to a Danish stage.
Slightly more complicated is the second part of the double program with Carl Orff’s The Clever Woman – a similarly satirical, power-critical work, which is more intricate in its structure of 12 images that somewhat surrealistically jump in and out of its timeline.
Here, too, the set and scenery have been created with impressive creativity. Some of the cast are repeats from the first part of the evening.
The odd tale is about a young woman who ends up fooling, exposing and humiliating the powers that be in the form of a greedy king who makes questionable decisions and ends up locked up in the suitcase he has thrown his wife out on the street with.
Musically, this is a somewhat demanding task from Carl Orff, who wrote the work in 1940 and, in connection with the de-Nazification programs of the post-war years, defended himself with the piece’s inherent, albeit patient, criticism of power.
The plot contains so much subtle symbolism that it is a little difficult to get to grips with, and musically it is a long way from the smooth, melodic melody that many people expect from an opera experience.
An exciting evening of opera in Frankfurt earns five stars for its high artistic level – and then you have to decide for yourself whether you are ready for this perhaps somewhat narrow genre of absurd, modernist musical drama.
QUICK FRANKFURT TIPS
Rent a Nextbike bike via mobile (they’re everywhere in the city center) and pedal along the banks of the Main River, where fat geese frolic in the pretty green spaces overlooking runners, kayakers and Frankfurt’s iconic skyline.
Museums and galleries are close by and I recommend the Städel with old masters (including a gorgeous Botticelli painting), as well as a fine collection of Weimar artists with their colorful motifs and brash style.
Just off Römer Square you’ll find both the Museum of Modern Art and the Schirn Kunsthalle, with well-stocked collections of installation works that are only partially understood, unless you’d much rather take a seat at the square’s numerous watering holes and enjoy ice-cold, frothy quality beer.
I like to stay at the excellent, affordable Motel One Römer 200 meters from the old, rebuilt city center – and even shorter to Oper Frankfurt at Willy Brandt Platz.
After a performance at the opera, you eat at Fundus, where I have several times seen the stars of the evening arrive for dinner to great applause from the guests.
Baja Bike has excellent, guided bike tours that give a good overview of the city, which is smaller than you think and in many ways worth a weekend trip.
The Alte Oper, by the way, has been beautifully rebuilt and plays high-quality classical concerts interspersed with various popular shows and rock concerts.
Local football heroes Eintracht Frankfurt beat Suttgart in the semi-final shortly after my visit, and will play the German Cup final against Leipzig on June 3. Good luck to them.