This season, opera in London speaks with a German accent.
At the Royal Opera House, the director Tobias Kratzer wants to tap into the spirit of Beethoven with a fresh production of “Fidelio” in a year of celebrations that mark 250 years since the composer’s birth.
In just a few years, Mr. Kratzer has shot to prominence with a string of acclaimed productions across Europe. His recent triumphs include an emotionally wrenching production of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and a mischievous “Tannhäuser,” which won near universal acclaim at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival.
“Fidelio,” with sold-out performances through March 17, marks Mr. Kratzer’s debut in the English-speaking world. In London, he is one of the youngest practitioners of a German stage philosophy sometimes known as Regietheater (literally, “director’s theater”) that often takes liberties with plot details and can subject canonical works to strenuous deconstructions.
Speaking between rehearsals in early February, he sounded unfazed by the challenge of bringing his avant-garde sensibilities to London’s main opera house, even if doing so rubs up against local traditions.
“The idea of having a director not only arrange things, but really to interpret pieces, is more or less a German invention, dating back to the time of the Weimar Republic,” said Mr. Kratzer, 40. If London or New York audiences expect more from a production than mere window dressing, the influence of German directors is part of the reason.
“The British theater tradition is still much more based on a narrative level, while the German tradition starts from a more deconstructive point of view,” he explained.
But Mr. Kratzer’s productions show that a director can approach a well-known opera from an unusual angle without destroying it. His Bayreuth “Tannhäuser” turned Wagner’s minnesinger into a prankster whose anarchist pals include a dwarf and a drag queen; his Berlin “Zwerg” read between the lines of the libretto to construct a portrait of the tortured composer.
Such approaches may prove refreshing to audiences for whom German opera productions often carry a stigma as chaotic spectacles.
Mr. Kratzer feels a primary responsibility to communicate a piece’s emotional weight in order to connect with his listeners even as he surprises them. “This doesn’t mean that you have to fulfill an audience’s expectations,” he said, “and it doesn’t mean that you need to break them at any price.”
Over the past decade, London has seen more examples of German theatrical styles, and this season, some of Mr. Kratzer’s compatriots have been tasked with new productions. At the Royal Opera House, Claus Guth stages “Jenufa” later this month, followed by Christof Loy’s new “Elektra” in May. At English National Opera, Tatjana Gürbaca directs a new “Rusalka” in late March.
Oliver Mears, the Royal Opera House’s director of opera, invited Mr. Kratzer to direct “Fidelio” after seeing Mr. Kratzer’s 2018 “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” Jacques Offenbach’s opera about a hard-drinking poet and his sad love affairs, in Amsterdam.
In “Fidelio,” a devoted wife assumes a false identity to break her husband out of prison. Like “Hoffmann,” it is an opera that is easy to be jaded about.
Part of what fascinated Mr. Kratzer about “Fidelio” was how Beethoven, writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, used opera as a medium capable of delivering a political and personal message. “He’s really trying to use this art form almost as a philosophical tool,” he said. “And this is a starting point for a tradition that goes through Verdi and Wagner, up to Helmut Lachenmann,” he said.
The contemporary challenge for a director, Mr. Kratzer said, is to find a way to present Beethoven’s only opera that expresses its idealistic message. A searing ode to the Enlightenment and to marital love, “Fidelio” is a piece whose faith in lofty ideals can easily seem naïve and dated.
In his productions, Mr. Kratzer seems to purposely avoid any sort of instantly recognizable, signature style, preferring to approach each work on its own terms. In the case of “Fidelio,” he said, he was aiming to convey something of the piece’s radical idealism in a production that fused modern and traditional elements.
“I think even in a period piece there can be completely modern, psychological investigations,” he said. “For me, it’s not primarily a matter of setting an opera in modern times or not. For me it goes deeper. You can have quite a modern production in a period staging, and a pretty old-fashioned production in 20th or 21st century settings.”
“The specific challenge of this piece is that it has a very optimistic, utopian message,” he continued. He added that it is very easy now for directors to fall into the trap of actively undermining the opera’s message (and many have). “Looking at the world today, it’s quite easy to be cynical about this opera,” Mr. Kratzer said.
“Times are difficult for utopia,” the director added. “In this anniversary year, I’d like to recapture the spirit Beethoven intended for this opera,” he said. “It’s a hard goal, but worth aiming for.”
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