An the end it still fits, harmoniously, idiosyncratically – and as an original. Alexei Ratmansky, ex-Bolshoi ballet director with Ukrainian roots, who has also long been a peace activist and whose popular works are currently being played in Russia without naming them, is giving the world premiere of a neoclassical, abstract evening filler at the Bavarian State Opera that could not be more Russian: “Tchaikovsky Overtures”. based on Shakespearean motifs. And with that, the Munich house is still celebrating a creatively fruitful end of the year.
The successful work was ordered by Munich’s former Russian ballet director Igor Zelensky. But he has long been back in Moscow with his longtime lover, Putin’s daughter Katarina, under the protective wing of his father-in-law. Just like a Munich soloist couple, the Muscovite Ksenia Ryzhkova and the Englishman Jonah Cook, apparently against all Western common sense, moved there.
Laurent Hilaire, Zelensky’s successor at Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theater, has now taken over his post in Munich. Already at the end of March – strictly according to the program – Ratmansky’s Mussorgsky ballet “Pictures at an Exhibition” to the “Great Gate of Kyiv” was waiting with the Ukrainian flag as the stage design. At the Bavarian State Opera, the ballet of all things is currently particularly political.
However, Ratmansky’s three-part paraphrase of Shakespeare is by no means up-to-date and remains pleasantly abstract. While Mikhail Agrest knows how to elicit spirited, colorful, dynamically spacious, gripping and tender Tchaikovsky sounds from the State Orchestra, Ratmansky links the evening with a delicate Ariadne thread.
The Hamlet Overture, part of an incidental music while the other two are purely orchestral fantasies, is preceded by the Elegy from the same work. It sets the mood and the content – a kind of puck, the swift-jumping Shale Wagman, seems to whirl everything up in a grey-black, semi-abstract landscape. Swift, tragic and full of spirit, Ratmansky ruffles his group, whose classic forms he constantly breaks.
And just as the pictorial elements of the decorator Jean-Marc Puissant – pedestals, horizon panels, a tree, neon poles, hints of clouds – constantly change, so do Tchaikovsky’s moods. The middle section unleashes Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, Jinhao Zhang poses as a slightly anemic Prospero, Yonah Acosta writhes as Caliban, and Madison Young and Ariel Merkuri seem to give the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand amorous wings. António Casalinho is in the air as the bouncing bouncy goblin Ariel.
The ardent Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture is preceded by a reconstructed duet by Tchaikovsky from an abandoned opera on the same subject. Here Elmira Karashanova and Aleksey Kursanov wait, sonorous but largely immobile, as foreign bodies between the dancers. Before that, three couples, led by the expressive duo Maria Baranova and Julian MacKay, conjure up tragic lovers in ever new variations of dancing togetherness.
Alexei Ratmansky remains undecided, you can get involved with the content of these virtuoso-free “Tchaikovsky Overtures”, but you can also enjoy them as an abstract dance. Especially the men are rewarded with rewarding tasks. It is nice to see how much Ratmansky’s shimmering, knowing art, which combines tradition and the present, always reveals new facets and detailed embellishments even in the Allegro tempo.
Reorganization of the ballet and farewell to the Stalinist-dubious Igor Zelensky, Serge Dorny, the new director of the Bavarian State Opera who started a year and a half ago at the height of the corona restrictions, can at least tick off this to-do point. However, some other problem areas are still open.
The barely present dramaturgy, a confused social media strategy, boring monochromatic publications and websites. The Belgian first had to learn that the Bavarian State Opera, as Germany’s first internationally renowned opera house and repertory theater, is more colorful and demanding than his former, manageable opéra boutique with a stagione schedule in Lyon.
In the first season, the audience saw almost nothing but bulky stuff from the 20th century, with thoroughly exciting results. Of course, two productions of the new May Festival, which is dedicated to the contemporary, had to be postponed; one for political reasons (Teodor Currentzis was too uncertain a candidate shortly after the outbreak of war), the other for financial reasons. The workforce, which can hardly fall back on the temporary workers who migrated to other fields of work during the pandemic, was overburdened by many absences and rescheduling that are still related to Covid-19.
The Bavarian State Opera, which is otherwise used to success with almost 100 percent occupancy, has a high degree of refinancing, so the clearly noticeable post-lockdown hesitancy of some audiences left gaps. In strict Bavaria, only 50 visitors were allowed into the 2000-seat auditorium. Confidence is slowly growing again. Not even Jonas Kaufmann was sold out anymore.
The Munich press immediately rumored about excessive expenses and dissatisfaction behind the scenes at the opera, even about disagreements in the relationship with the general music director Vladimir Jurowski. The Ministry of Culture tried to pacify. Many an intrigue that smelled like yesterday was attempted.
Serge Dorny started his second season with two classics: 29 and 13 years after the last new productions, the city of Mozart and Wagner received a new “Così fan tutte” and a fresh “Lohengrin”. Jurowski introduced himself as a finely chiselled, steely Mozart interpreter who was a little lacking in smiles. In the unbalanced cast, Christian Gerhaher shone as the gruff Don Alfonso with a sado leather mask, Sandrine Piau as the elderly, refined Despina and – new to the house ensemble – the very fine song-baritone Konstantin Krimmel (who, despite many open strokes, was denied the second Guglielmo aria).
Only bland and unimaginative, also in an ugly ambiance between garage, filthy mattress and dick graffiti, the enlightening “That’s how everyone does it” love cheating game unfolds as an inconsolable farce. Australian Benedict Andrews, primarily a film and theater director, had little illuminating to say.
The same can be said of the ugly, boring “Lohengrin” by the chronically overrated Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó. He plays in a pair of sweatpants, knows hardly any choral movements in the white, unified room, and dispenses with swans and other miracles. But he comes up with a weed, golden peacock wheel beating Elsa and a black meteorite in the finale.
Here the eternal swan knight Klaus Florian Vogt is still solid. Anja Kampe yells at Ortrud with pleasure. Mika Kares (King Heinrich) and Andrè Schuen (Heerrufer) are Munich cast luxury. On the other hand, Johanni van Ostrum (Elsa), who stepped in, intoned incorrectly, and Johan Reuter as Telramund also sings colorlessly. The currently leaderless choir is surprisingly good (also a challenge for Dorny), which was superbly rehearsed by the Frankfurt choir director Tilman Michael.
And certainly François-Xavier Roth, who left Cologne, was an original and interesting choice of conductor. In the last performance, on the other hand, he had to give up due to injury to Constantin Trinks, who suffered very well here. And he conducted with such vitality, rhythmic precision and elegant roundness that you could literally hear the fun of everyone involved.
That’s how it should sound at the Bavarian State Opera. You just don’t want to have to close your eyes all the time. So let’s hope for the best for the next premieres by Krzysztof Warlikowski and Dmitri Tcherniakov.