Jeanne d’Arc - Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna, Walter Braunfels
Deutsche Oper Berlin
29th November, 2012
One doesn’t need to know that the hallowed German director Christoph Schlingensief died of cancer in 2010 to understand that this staging of Walter Braunfels’s 1942 opera is the product of a mind desperately grappling with its own mortality. The subtitle of the work aside, (“Scenes from the Life of St. Joan”), this was a piece all about death. The martyrdom of Joan of Arc provided a mere starting-off point for the director’s frantic (and often insightful and poignant) explorations of the Mystery of the Flesh and of the insufficiency of modern thought to offer any coherent ideology to tackle that mystery.
Schlingensief clearly suffered from a surfeit of ideas, and one had the feeling in this production that one was flipping through his working notebook, full of random doodles and exclamations. Much was good in the show, among the jumble of ever-rotating fantastical costumes and symbols falling from the rafters, but the visual excess (two and three layers of unsteady video projection covering the stage almost constantly) became quickly wearying, and as the ideas piled up, one wondered if he couldn’t have eliminated a few of his metaphors in the interest of creating some sort of narrative. (Call me old-fashioned.) As is too often the case in Regietheater re-mountings, theatrical and musical sloppiness also detracted from whatever original intellectual rigor may have elevated the production in 2008.
Schlingensief, in trying to elucidate such big ideas as the nature of physical existence and death (through the rather flimsy vehicle of Braunfels’s score), was clearly aware of the futility of his task. And so he shrewdly deflects criticism of the production by mocking himself within it, the lazy “Western” conceptual artist, who makes art by having his assistants smear his body with paint, or who hangs a banner indicating what his concept is (“a dead cow should be lowered from the rafters here”, one reads). In one of the projected films, we see Schlingensief himself at a brickmaking factory in Nepal, prancing about in a white suit as the labourers toil, hunched in the mud. He seems to say: they are real, and I am a fool.
Throughout the show, one senses this striving for a deeper connection to the earth, to the body, or at least to a stable faith — perhaps a longing for the Catholicism of the past, which, in Schlingensief’s vision, has been replaced by an arrogant culture of secular art and science (the sentencing bishop, dressed in white lab-coat, lights a cigarette as he condemns St. Joan to death by fire). The futility of the shifting intellectual grounds of religion and science are demonstrated on the ever-rotating stage: church-cults with their outlandish garb come and go, rituals strive to transcend, but in the end, none of these structures of belief can elevate us above the truth: that in our essential physicality, we are no different from a mass of writhing maggots. In fact, we are maggots: many of the characters donned roly-poly maggot costumes at various points in the show. The wonder of Schlingensief’s imagination is that he somehow manages to elevate the maggots as much as he humbles humanity.
Perhaps the most beautiful expression of this in the show was the onstage presence of a very large and beefy, live cow (perilously restrained by two handlers). The cow, gleamingly groomed and so powerful in her presence, made the best case for his argument that only the physical is real, that no cow-costume or cartoon of a cow can ever replace the awe of the thing itself.
But what of the opera itself? Braunfels’s spotty libretto and score (both written by the composer between 1938-1942), is competent but rarely transcendent, and could not really hold the weight of either its subject or the director’s handling of it. Musically, it was reminiscent of Strauss’s less adventurous passages, or of Samuel Barber without the clear-hearted, American openness. It is possible that the score is better than it sounded, as the orchestra (under Matthias Foremny) and chorus (William Spaulding) were generally plodding, imprecise, and under-energized, as if sight-reading.
Mary Mills, as St. Joan, possesses a youthful, sweet tone, and sang with more musical detail and precision than most of the others in the cast, although she seemed lost interpretively and thus lacked presence. One had the feeling she did not like or understand the production, when she should have been its guiding force, dramatically.
The most committed actor in the cast was Simon Neal, as Gilles de Rais, who in spite of (or perhaps because of) having his face half-covered by a wrestling mask for most of the show, was able to project a threatening and somewhat desperate energy.
Paul McNamara, as St. Michael, was another standout, his solos delivered with a trumpeting, straight-edged intensity from on high.
The warmth and beauty of Mr. McNamara’s voice perhaps undermined the director’s concept somewhat, for Schlingensief’s saints seemed designed to be more cold, robotic emissaries than visions of celestial beauty. Asexual, costumed in identical bowl-haircuts and black cloaks of shimmering stars, their detached stillness, of spirit removed from flesh, inspired more menace than comfort.
For this is the choice that the director wanted to outline for us, Joan’s choice, seen from the depressive’s perspective: she can live in the world of bloody flesh, of illness and decay and tedium, or in the world of faith — arbitrary, uncertain, and freakish. There is no surety to be found in either realm, no comfort; for all the rituals of faith and art and science can only assuage our existential horror temporarily. In the end, the truth is much harder to grasp, the fragments of a fever-dream, slipping away upon awakening.
Bottom line: Interesting, but a hot mess.
response to this review: firstname.lastname@example.org
Idea, Conception Christoph Schlingensief
Production-Team, based on the conception by Christoph Schlingensief Carl Hegemann
Conductor - Matthias Foremny
Thekla von Mülheim
Costume design - Aino Laberenz
Costume- & stage-design - Bernd Damovsky
Video - Kathrin Krottenthaler
Video Assistant - Konstantin Hapke
Chorus-Conductor - William Spaulding
Childrens Chorus - Christian Lindhorst
St. Michael - Paul McNamara
St. Catharina - Kim-Lillian Strebel
St. Margarete - Annie Rosen
Charles of Valois, King - Clemens Bieber
Archbishop of Reims - James J. Kee
Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais - Peter Maus
Vicar Inquisitor - ZhengZhong Zhou
Jeanne d'Arc - Mary Mills
Jacobus of Arc - Tobias Kehrer
Colin - Paul Kaufmann
Gilles de Rais - Simon Neal
Duke of Trémouille - Lenus Carlson
Duke of Alencon - Jörg Schörner
Chevalier Baudricourt - Seth Carico
Lison - Rachel Hauge
Bertrand de Poulengy - Yosep Kang
Florent d'Illiers - James J. Kee
page - Paula Marzejon
Salisbury - James J. Kee
archpriest - Birgit Köhne
Dancer - Marcos Abranches