Egklecticism, well-framed: “Peer Gynt” at Theater an der Wien

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Usually, neither Peer Gynt (#ExtensiveWhiteAble-BodiedManpain) nor Werner Egk – whose behavior during the NS regime had a decidedly brown tinge  – would make me want to go to the opera, but the staging in this is case is by Peter Konwitschny, and has Bo Skovhus and Maria Bengtsson in the leads. It also features Natascha Petrinsky, who left a lasting impression on me as Amneris in the Konwitschny staging of “Aida” back in 2008 – enough, in fact, to have me mark this production in my calendar as soon as it was announced. (#WillShowUpForTheMezzos)

“Peer Gynt” – not that removed from Faust in that regard – asks the core question of what life’s purpose can be, especially if a person defies convention, and how to find absolution when all intents have failed. In both cases, the answer is in finding purpose: having something left to do, recognizing something as fruitful (nevermind the predominantly female body count racked up on the side).

Konwitschny manages to turn the question into something timeless and more universal in his trademark, alert personenregie and his keen eye for the intersection of individual and overarching narratives. There is a serene mastery to this evening that creates moments both gutting and fun, and never needs to show off or rely on smoke and mirrors.

Konwitschny succeeds in making Peer Gynt relatable as a tale, yet even he cannot remove the blind spots the work (and the myth) have: it’s a tale of privilege, where even as a loser, there is never a question that the white man is still the epicenter of any tale. This is also where Egk’s opera – the composer wrote his own libretto – dovetails uncomfortably well-fittingly into Nazi aesthetics: women as objectified and reduced to emotion in the classic saint/whore divide, different classes of men by the measure of sexual prowess, race and ableism,  and a vocabulary (rhyming wasn’t Egk’s strong suit, it seems) that borrows from the Nazi repertory of the 1930s.

Musically, the evening is a two-fold happening. The score in itself is eclectic, serving up everything on offer in 1938 like a Smörgåsbord: some Strauss, some post-post Wagner, even some Krenek and Weill slants with a dollop of Korngold on top. As I stated somewhat flippantly on Twitter, “Peer Gynt” sounds like Strauss trying to write film music after having had a full Thanksgiving dinner.
There are a lot of different styles and colors on offer, and the orchestra (I had a nice view on opening night) is equipped with everything from contra bassoon to celesta to a marimbaphone (?), but the music is nothing that sticks or feels genuine. It feels like a  film score: serving its purpose in underlining the visuals.

It’s quite another thing, though, what Leo Hussain and the ORF RSO Vienna make of this score. It’s one question whether all the ingredients that Egk tosses at the listener make sense or even a palatable dish, but there is no doubt that they were wonderfully executed. Both band and conductor threw themselves with verve and precision into style upon style, seemingly saying “oh, and *this*, we can do to… and *this*, as well…”
Even the post-post Wagner with it’s heavy lower brass never came across uncomfortably heavy (here’s to final chords played short and steep!), and the excursions to tango, film music kitsch and jazz never were treated like a ‘lesser than’.

I’m not sure I would need this Egk score (or any Egk score) in my life on a permanent basis, but if I were to listen to it again, I’d want it to please be Hussain’s take (it carries through more than one night, too – since I had guests from out of town who belong to the hardcore regie fangirls, I ended up in the dress rehearsal, too, silently wondering whether two nights of Egk would be too much. It wasn’t, though less for the score itself. Rather, it was a pleasure to get to listen to it twice simply for how it was played).

The evening starts with Peer Gynt – Bo Skovhus – in front of a projection of clouds, hands stuffed in his pockets, ignoring the crowd in the audience. His dress and wig – a little ponytail, a checkered shirt with rolled up sleeves, a vest, a colored pair of pants – made him, to those familiar with Konwitschny, look a bit like Konwitschny himself (a parallel also apparent during curtain calls), and I wondered throughout the evening whether this staging is also an – perhaps unintended – self-questioning portrait of the artist as a younger man.

The choir for the evening is the Arnold Schönberg Choir, who are, once more, outstanding. Konwitschny works closely with choirs in general, giving them individual tales and never just directing an anonymous mass, and – again, my bird’s eye view on opening night was a great spot – to see all the small stories play out was very rewarding.

The village community in the first scene, at a postponed wedding, is brimming with aggression, using Peer – the defiant dreamer – as a readily available scapegoat as they beat him up in a lust for blood. Standing out here is Cornelia Hovak as the reeve’s wife, drunk and vulgar, her body bent out of the vertical line with pent-up tension, egging on both the crowd and Peer and itching for the explosion that is already in the air.

This wedding is also where Peer meets Solveig, who is here staged as blind (seeing what others can’t, not seeing what others do?). She is at all times accompanied by a young girl, perhaps her sister, perhaps her own child, which would explain her status as an outcast of this community, mirroring Peer.
Peer is first drawn to Solveig’s singing, immediately turning her into a projection of religious proportions (some incense in the music), yet then accosts her. Of course, she is inexplicably drawn to him regardless (*insert eyeroll here*). Konwitschny manages to give it a twist towards universal empathy – which Solveig, the unseeing, can ‘see’ – in having Solveig present and hear Peer getting beat up.

Peer, battered, runs off with the bride of that wedding, whom he then discards immediately when they reemerge in a state of undress in a seedy sailor’s bar. The sets – in a line of scene changes that must stretch the theater’s resources to the limits, which is evident also in the long breaks between scenes that treat the hall to views of moving clouds, at times at a length that the audience becomes restless –  are manifold: two-storey buildings, a cargo vessel backdrop, Peer’s lonesome cabin, and the bar on the outskirts of town, where the pub owner (also the Troll King: Rainer Trost, who has moved into charakterfach to an extent that I did not recognize his voice during the dress rehearsal!) dunks the teabag for Aase into her cup, and then right away into another: resources are slim. It’s these tiny moments – both fun and poignant – that are classic Konwitschny and mark the evening.

Heavier fare are the allusions to patriarchy as enabling abuse of women and children, in a twin set of scenes where the first one is innocuous, but already somewhat uncomfortable, and with the second one picking up the constellation and driving home the sinister point.
In the first scene in the bar, Solveig comes in with the child, looking for the restroom, and the little girl, unobserved, ends up playing cards with a couple of sailors, who might be just genuinely friendly, but there is an undercurrent of threat to the moment in the soldiers, watching the girl dangling her feet off a bar bench too high.
Later in the evening, with Gynt already having lost his business, the scene returns to the bar, and one of Gynt’s business partners takes money for bringing in the girl, who now walks across a pool table: half jumping, still playful, but then in an increasingly posing manner,  while the sailors watch on, seated around her, rhythmically slapping the table, until one of them loses control and tries to grab the child. Her pimp manages to scurry her away, but gets then killed by the sailors, who are already adrenalized. The pub owner – who couldn’t spare the second teabag – steps in only to take back the money, and orders the body to be dragged off, while the child underneath the table has heard witnessed the entire scene.

Central to the staging is the casting of Solveig and the Redhead (the Troll King’s daughter) with the same singer (Maria Bengtsson), a coup similar to doing “Tannhäuser” with the same singer for Venus and Elisabeth. Konwitschny uses this casting to address the female roles in their layout as projected opposites, which is already effective on its own. He employs a body double for Solveig to pull off a very quick change early on, but then also uses overlay: at times, Solveig and Redhead are blending into another, pointing towards ultimately being the same (as a more fully realized character?). It is splendid work, by both Bengtsson (who does, lamentably, not get as much individual character work to do in between being posed as a saint and a slut by the libretto) and by Konwitschny.
The signifiers – red wig and a facial scar for the Redhead, sunglasses for Solveig – do allow for immediate switches and for moments of both figures colliding into one another, e.g. with Peer singing of finding love to the Redhead, who then morphs into Solveig.

Bengtsson bridges the gap of vocal demands, though I found her ultimately more convincing in the lyrical Solveig scenes (those high floating piani!), while the Redhead fight scenes could have used some more dramatic bite.

The trolls, as stated by Konwitschny in interviews beforehand, are mindless consumers, all marked with the same facial scar that seems to imply impaired vision. It is one of several twists that allow him to shift the tale away from Nazi-tainted mythologies and the timeframe of the world premiere, removing it from a position of constant defense where the work could only lose out. Konwitschny, instead, tries to look at more universal themes.

He has a congenial partner in Bo Skovhus, who continues to be a veritable stage animal, throwing himself into the part not just vocally, but also physically (side note: he is amazingly fit for someone in their, what, mid-fifties now?! Those arms!!): whether he is chopping wood next to Peer’s cabin, or eating a banana mid-scene (only to then toss the peel into the bathtumb of the corrupt politican he is conferring with (with sonorous presence: Stefan Cerny)), or climbing across a second floor railing to lower himself down to ground level in a reverse pull-up (did I mention his arms already?), or doing an entire scene stripped down to socks and tighty whities, while dancing on one leg and then breaking down, exposed and exhausted, atop the pool table in a turn-about of sexualized objectifiction: Skovhus is giving an amazing performance.

Also vocally, Skovhus is still on top of his game. Of course he has moved past his cavalier repertory years, employing a more dramatic tone, but it is at all times governed by great diction. He can do powerful, but you never get the impression that he cannot pull it back any longer. He is still capable of balanced, lyrical lines, with the kind of streaming tone that made his Mozart and early Verdi stand out. A stellar performance throughout.

Another important factor in this evening are the sets by Helmut Brade, another longer-time Konwitschny companion. His trademark handwritten fonts, detail work, and Brechtian use of space carry the evening along with the direction.
A signature moment here is the abduction of Gynt’s trade steamer, which Brade illustrates by pulling away the large prospect displaying a 2D-painting of the ship, revealing a smaller image of it behind. Removing that, too, it is followed by one even smaller – as the choir waves on – and a fourth, yet smaller, which goes up into flames and smoke when Gynt’s ship is supposed to blow up and sink: theatre at its best Brechtian fun.

In between Brade and Konwitschny, the evening also evokes some unexpected nostalgia over the Eastern-german socialized perspective of doing theatre, with its self- understanding as craftmanship and its unabashed critique of consumerism. Among the Regie directors, Konwitschny may be the last one with active, meaningful productions who comes from that line, and seeing this evening was a bit anticipating having to miss him at some point, and sensing the loss that will signify.

There are some images that seem to lag behind time already – as in the troll crowd raising their wallets (and not credit cards, or cell phones) in an adoration of capitalism. In the same scene, the bright neon clothing aesthetic harks back to the 1990, and to Konwitschny’s take on the Gluck “Iphigénie” a few years ago, where the choir looked similar.

Also the employ of a TV – not a notebook – as consumerist gadget is something that Konwitschny has used before (as in his 2000 Hamburg “Rosenkavalier”), showcasing the reaction of his protagonists to the device. Here, Peer remains distant while the Schönberg Choir – as the back of the TV is turned to the audience – tells the watching experience through their reactions. And suddenly, the soundtrack-like score works perfectly: taken as an illustration for something that it merely underlines, and not invents.

A moment skirting the edges of current political correctness is the employ of four black people as banana-leaf waving victims of colonialism around the golden bathtub of the corrupt white politician: Colonialism should be criticized, but the visuals employed don’t cut it with ‘but we mean to point out that it’s bad’. In a time where black bodies and brown bodies and indigenous bodies are under such attack, any further image of submission, even as an act of criticism, gives dangerous visibility. (the following appearance of the choir dressed as indios evokes a similar reaction)

Another image in the same scene that worked very well instead was a cello case that, instead of an instrument, contained a miniature tank, fighter yet and submarine: toys for Peer’s business cronies who gleefully take to the floor with them like little boys.

The strongest scene of the evening for me was the penultimate one, set on an abandoned railway stop: the sign withered away into illegibility, the station clock broken, the set just a piece of platform and a few rails running into a stop post: a road to nowhere.
The ‘three black birds’ who appear in this scene like the mythological fates, look like 1900′ norns dressed for their own funeral, and Konwitschny has each of them sung by singers who previously appeared as women in the storyline: the reeve’s wife, the abandoned bride, the mother.
Into this Twilight of The Gods echo – with the birds posing (yet never answering) the question of what’s good, or bad, or the purpose of life – breaks the Troll Zombie Apocalypse Choir with black-and-white money flags, turning the moment into a (post)capitalist dystopia with a Weill/Brechtian march tone that makes you wonder, “Fine, there’s low brass, but other than that, why did the Nazis like this?!”

It’s here, in between the phrases of the third bird and the apparition of Peer’s mother Aase, who, once more, fiercely defends her son, that Natascha Petrinsky finally gets to pull out all the stops she is capable of.
The early scenes of the (lamentably short) role of Aase are at the wedding and the bar, not really displaying that much power or range yet. There is a nice moment in the very first appearance, where Aase shows up with a semi-automatic at the distorted wedding, scattering the crowd before she then shoots up the champagne table – a visual which I would like as a reaction gif. (The gentleman friend who accompanied me to opening night asked, “But was that necessary?”, to which I replied, “But what a great image!”, and he had to agree (much later that night, I was dragged to the opening night party by said gentleman friend, and at some even later point of the night, Petrinsky walked past us in the hall. The gentleman friend and I stood transfixed for a good few seconds, and then he only muttered ‘My God.’, which I will leave standing here as a testimony to Petrinsky having formidable presence at large)).

Petrinsky’s voice has grown more dramatic in recent years; it now invites the heavy Czech or German repertory more than Verdi. While there may be less mellowness to her tone, she still has the same bright, ringing top, with a color that is as interestingly muted as I remember. Also her lower range is still ringing and full, at no time slipping into roars. Beyond her vocal shape, she remains an intelligent actress with very good physical presence, working a small gesture like pondering the crossword just as well as the big gesture with the gun.

(one piece of intelligence that came out of being dragged to that opening night party (I abhor opening night parties) was Roland Geyer announcing during the applause calls that this “Peer Gynt” might have been Petrinsky’s first appearance with TADW, but not her last. — Well. Tell me more, I will be there!)

The final scene of the evening takes place in a home for the elderly, where the residents ponder life and purpose, in a choir under the auspices and baton of the residency director. Peer, persecuted by the devil, finds his final moment of purpose with the waiting Solveig (who has spent her life being both doormat and open door to him). Konwitschny pokes gentle irony at the kitsch displayed in the score, has Solveig serve milk in slippers, the Redhead’s wig is still present, but it ends up tossed away, just like Solveig’s sunglasses, in a final, impossible image of arrival and forgiveness. Unanimous applause in the end.

Bottom line: even if post-post-Wagner gives you indigestion and if you can’t stand extended manpain, go see this for the staging and the sets (and I don’t mean that in a lavish decor kind of way), for the way Hussain handles the eclectic score, and see it for an incredibly good Skovhus (and for Petrinsky #MezzoPower).

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