Reviving a rarity
The weekend before last, Berlin’s three opera houses were going at full stream. Music lovers could choose from Otello, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Pique Dame, Il Turco in Italia, La Traviata, Ariadne auf Naxos and Tristan und Isolde. The most exciting production on offer, however, was a rare staging of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Wachsfigurenkabinett (“Waxworks”), a programme of five chamber operas written between 1928 and 1932.
A co-production between the Komische Oper Berlin and the Universität der Kunste (UdK), this clever, baffling and wildly imaginative production was just the sort of thing that Berlin does best: championing lost and forgotten works. In this respect, the Deutsche Oper Berlin has led the way with productions of Walter Brauenfels’ Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna, Eugen D’Albert’s Tiefland and, most recently, Richard Strauss’ Die Liebe der Danae. Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis was a hit last season at the Konzerthaus. Franz Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang is part of the Staatsoper’s repertoire.
A well-known avant-garde composer during the 1920s, Karl Amadeus Hartmann remained in German during the Second World War by finding subtle, subversive artistic ways to revolt against the Third Reich (a tactic known as “inner exile”). In post-war Germany, he was one of few composers whose name was not besmirched by Nazi association. His works are performed to this day in Germany, although it would be a stretch to say that he is a household name. The previous week I had interviewed conductor and violinist Thomas Zehetmair, one of Hartmann’s most prominent champions. He was excited when I mentioned a new production of Wachsfigurenkabinett, a work he said he was unfamiliar with.
Singers, musicians and artists drawn from Berlin’s various conservatories and art academies produced the five mini-operas in innovative stagings that unfurled in UNI.T, the theater of the UdK. These energetic performers brought the ironic and satirical works, with Hartmann’s jazzy and cabaret-sounding scores, to vivid life in an absurd guided tour through the entire building. An enormous ensemble of dancing actors cavorting about the auditorium for Der Mann, der vom Tode auferstand, upending chairs and interacting with the audience members, while a hilarious, faux-Expressionistic film was projected. In Fürwahr…?!, actors whizzed up and down the backstage stairwells, shouting at each other and brushing past audience members as a lone pianist tinkered a comically simple melody. Leben und Sterben des heiligen Teufels was arguably the strangest instalment: a song-and-dance pantomime involving circus-like magic tricks that was done in the lobby. Die Witwe von Ephesus, performed in a dark, crowed cellar, involved two sopranos, an accordion player, an electric model train and disturbingly lifelike puppets. For the finale, Chaplin-Ford-Trott, the audience converged on the stage, transformed into a David Lynchian campsite that was momentarily invaded by backpackers who broke out into a joyous foxtrot.
A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based contributor to Gramophone. His articles on classical music have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, WSJ Europe, Opera News Magazine and the Forward.