In an attempt to be kind and not repeat the sins of the programmers of the operatic double bill of Donizetti and Oscar Strasnoy at Munich’s Prince Regent's Theatre, I’ll try to summarize the boring and daft Donizetti one-act farce I Pazzi per progetto (Fools by Design) into as few words as possible, instead of droning on for nearly 90 minutes, as Donizetti did.
Not even the superior singing of Sumi Hwang, a recent second prize winner at the ARD Music Competition, or the charming contributions of the elegant and light-voiced mezzo Ulrike Malotta, or the cleverly designed set (Bärbl Hohmann) could justify sitting through the torpor of hollow busyness at hand… a description equally suitable for the staging (Karsten Wiegand, lots of running around and banging on doors) and the music, some of Donizetti’s most soporific.
The evening could have been improved from bearable to most pleasurable, simply by cutting the first half and skipping to the 2010 farce (another one-act comedy) by prolific opera (and tango and whatnot) composer Oscar Strasnoy, more of whose sparkly little masterpiece anon.
Nearly torpedoing the evening, apart from Donizetti, was the fact that I had caught a Kids & Youth Performance: A grand mistake. Not because the occasionally racy content (simulated BJ included) might have been bowdlerized (it certainly wasn’t), much less because of the presence of a few dozen youngsters whose lively commentary and interaction proved a refreshing tonic of honesty in the one-third full theater otherwise stuffed with employees of the event-organizing Bavarian Radio. It was the speaker, Ben Alber, whose gratingly inane, patronizing introductions became a farce all of their own. Listing instances of absurdity, laziness, ineptitude, and pandering would go too far… suffice it to say that by the time the music director of the Munich Radio Orchestra Ulf Schirmer finally grabbed the microphone, cut the speaker down to size with a few well-placed remarks about stupid questions and not interrupting him, the audience—kids and adults alike—was in stitches.
Then, at last, came Strasnoy’s Le Bal, which positively whizzed by in a brief hour. Based on a story by Iréne Némirovsky we see a crude nouveau riche couple that neglects their teen-daughter—especially the mother, threatened by young Antoinette’s burgeoning sexuality. A floozy of an English tutor is more interested in the sloppy butler than the gal, and the piano teacher more interested in her father (Sandro Schmalzl). A grand dinner and ball is planned, to confirm and convey the couple’s social standing, the menu meticulously planned, and a fancy band ordered. As the clock tick-tocks mockingly into the guest-less silence on the night of the event, Antoinette, forbidden to participate, hides and gleefully observes the creeping disaster. No one shows, except for the voice teacher, because Antoinette didn’t mail the invitations, but destroyed them instead.
When Ulf Schirmer said of Strasnoy’s score that it was “like film music, but whackier”, he was right in the best sense: The music manages to become an integral, elucidating element of the story; adds its humor and wit, awkward silences and—as if to entertain itself during the party—some Charleston and a particularly Klezmer-flavored bit of Mahler. Despite Strasnoy’s modern vernacular, which sent a couple patrons running, I found myself distantly but permanently reminded of Poulenc—which is to say that Strasnoy’s sense for using voices and his comedic timing are impeccable. It might be a (s)light work in the brow-furled world of opera, but its success cannot be diminished by this. I don’t remember many contemporary opera as obviously successful; only L’Amour de loin, The Three Sisters, and Das Gehege, really. Incidentally, the Hamburg Opera, which premiered Le Bal, coupled the work more ambitiously, intriguingly, awfully seriously: with the hard-core one-women shows of Wolfgang Rihm Das Gehege and Schoenberg’s Erwartung.
The stage was cleverly used (Anika Söhnholz), the direction witty and to the point. Not all of the young Everding Academy singers fit organically into their characters, but they all tried with considerable success. Especially mother, daughter, and “la professeur de piano”: Dorothee Koch, Katharina Ruckgaber, Danae Kontora respectively. The Munich Radio Orchestra didn’t—couldn’t—distinguish itself much in the Donizetti, but in the quick and exuberant virtuoso romp of a score that Strasnoy presents they shone.