The Bavarian State Opera steered clear of controversy with a popular new production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann." But two nights after its run ended, the company made up for it, reviving Calixto Bieito's radical reimagining of Beethoven's "Fidelio."
"Hoffmann," seen Friday night, played to sold-out houses on the strength of its cast. In the title role, tenor Rolando Villazon proved his comeback from a vocal crisis is for real; soprano Diana Damrau pulled off a virtuoso feat playing all the ladies in Hoffmann's unhappy love life; and the young mezzo-soprano Angela Brower showed herself a rising star in the double role of Hoffmann's Muse and his friend Niklausse.
The efficient but unremarkable production is by Richard Jones, who plays it safe after creating a stir two seasons ago with his let's-build-a-house version of Wagner's "Lohengrin."
He uses a single set (by Giles Cadle) that starts out as the loft where the poet does his writing, and, more often, his drinking. Putting all the action in the same space has the merit of simplicity and underscores the idea that each scene is one more drunken reverie. But it robs the opera of spectacle. The workshop of the inventor Spalanzani is lacking in gee-whiz gimmickry, and for the Venice scene we get neither Grand Canal nor gondolas.
In his most strenuous role since returning to the stage in 2010, Villazon found his lyric tenor stretched almost to the breaking point but never quite. Though youthful ardor is now beyond him, he filled out the melodic line with ample, healthy-sounding tone and took most of the high notes. He even swaggered through both verses of the high-flying drinking song in the Venice scene.
It was no surprise that Damrau could sparkle with her coloratura as the mechanical doll Olympia. But she was even more impressive as the frail Antonia, singing herself to death with warm, full tone. She made less impact as the courtesan Giulietta, but blame Jones for concocting an unconvincing ending for this scene, which Offenbach left unfinished at his death.
Brower, an American who is based in Munich, has a silvery hue to her voice that gains in luster as she moves up the scale. She also has a charming stage presence that suggests a future in "trousers" roles like Octavian in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." The fourth principal, bass John Relyea, sang Hoffmann's four nemeses with sturdy tone, if not much personality.
The orchestra played with sweep and authority for Constantinos Carydis, the young Greek conductor who tended to favor boisterousness over delicacy.
Two nights later, the orchestra again sounded magnificent as it played the score of "Fidelio" under the experienced baton of Zubin Mehta. And the cast could hardly have been bettered, starting with soprano Anja Kampe's incandescent Leonore.
But the news in this production is the way iconoclastic Spanish director Bieito has reinterpreted _ some would say distorted _ the story of a noble wife risking her life to save her unjustly imprisoned husband.
With help from an imposing steel-and-glass labyrinth set by Rebecca Ringst, Bieito turns "Fidelio" into an existential tale in which everyone is a prisoner wandering in search of freedom.
All the characters _ and numerous extras _ clamber up, down and around the transparent, multi-level maze throughout the evening, while the action plays out much as Beethoven intended until the final scene.
That's when the governor, Don Fernando, arrives to punish wicked Don Pizarro and honor Leonore and her husband, Florestan. But in Bieito's nihilistic version, this deus-ex-machina looks like The Joker in "Batman" and shoots Florestan for sport. (He must use a blank, because Florestan recovers in time for a final embrace with his wife and a look of dazed uncertainty.)
There are other liberties. Bieito replaces the dialogue with lines by Jorge Luis Borges and Cormac McCarthy. The opera opens with the Leonore Overture No. 3; and before the final scene, four string players descend in cages to play the slow movement from Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15, which the composer labeled "Heiliger Dankgesang," or holy song of thanksgiving.
Bieito's biggest asset is Kampe, who also starred when the production premiered last year. Her soulful, worried face greets us even before the first note is played as she binds her breasts to disguise herself as a man. In both her acting and strong, vibrant singing, she conveys a tremulous mixture of hope and fear that embodies humanity never giving up.
Tenor Peter Seiffert is a worthy partner as Florestan, whether crying out in anguish or blending his heroic sound in harmony with Kampe's. Bass Stephen Milling is rock-solid as Rocco the jailer; bass-baritone Albert Dohmen sounds wonderfully menacing as Pizarro; and Anna Virovlansky reveals a melting lyric soprano as Rocco's daughter, Marzelline. Rounding out the principals are baritone Goran Juric as Don Fernando and tenor Jussi Myllys as Marzelline's suitor, Jacquino.
Bieito's take on Beethoven's only opera is certainly not designed to please everyone, and plenty of grumbling and even some booing could be heard in the house. But the evening adds up to powerful theater _ the result of a director carrying through his vision with imagination and artistic integrity.