Another Rameau opera, this time in Berlin. The plot is based on the myths about Zoroaster, and, as usual in Baroque operas, it is pretty confused and doesn’t make a lot of sense. The king of Bactria dies, survived by two daughters, Amélite and Erinice, both in love with Zoroaster. He loves Amélite and Erinice, furious for his refusal, joins forces with his arch-enemy: Abramane, wizard/ high priest of a sort of satanic cult, who is also in love with Amélite. For the whole opera the good guys and the bad guys fight, with several reversals of fortune, until Good triumphs in the end.
The production by Tobias Kratzer was, of course, completely wacky: the fight between Good and Evil becomes a dispute between neighbors, who fight over a patch of grass. The middle-class Zoroaster and the low-class Abramane start quarrelling, the fight escalates, until it becomes a full-fledged war. Abramane kidnaps Amélite a couple of times, Zoroaster frees her, until in the end Abramane destroys the grass with a lawn mower, and Zoroaster shoots him dead. The most original and interesting feature of this garbage fire is the people of Bactria, who is represented as the ants in the grass. These ants appear in videos projected on the background (not continuously), showing the action as seen by them: Erinice throws the ash from her cigarette on the grass, and the ants are engulfed in a black cloud, when she puts out the cigarette butt there are casualties. The idea is not bad, but it’s not enough, to hold together the whole performance. Moreover, this feature causes the chorus to sing almost constantly off stage, which is not helpful.
The Komische Oper orchestra played on modern instruments, with modern strings, but baroque bows, and the pitch was at 440. Listening to Baroque music on modern instruments is a struggle for me: I find it confusing, not precise enough, and it generally leaves me unsatisfied. I think the conductor Christian Curnyn did a good job, but it’s not easy to highlight all the details with the wrong tools. The harpsichordist was great, but I don’t know the name.
The two protagonists, Thomas Walker as Zoroaster and Katharine Watson as Amélite, would have been served well by a 415 intonation. They were both struggling in their high register. Watson was in trouble: the part is really high, and her high notes were frankly squeaky, becoming worse as the evening progressed. “A cat squeezed in a slamming door”, as we say in Pisa. It’s a pity, because I had liked her a lot in other occasions (Theodora, Hippolyte et Aricie), but in both cases the intonation was at 415, and, in Hippolyte et Aricie, the part was considerably lower.
Walker was in dire straits. His timbre is not particularly haute-contre-ish, he is “only” a very high tenor, of the kind that, at every high note, you think “here we go, he’s going to crack” (kind of like Beczala). Then, unlike Beczala, he actually never cracks, but it’s very stressful. He always sounds like he’s pushing too hard, especially in the heroic parts, where, I have to say, the final result is not bad at all, because this anxiety conveys the excitement and the rush of the moment, and it gives a strength to the character, which would be hard to express, by a true haute-contre. The style is not bad at all. But it was such a struggle, he sounded like he was going to die.
The evil couple, Abramane and Erinice, was absolutely brilliant. Honestly, the characters themselves are much more interesting and less mono-dimensional than Zoroaster and Amélite, and the two singers managed to give a believable and focused interpretation. The cheers at the end confirmed that the whole audience agreed with me on this one.
Nadja Mchantaf has a velvety, smooth soprano, with confident and round high notes. the part is, I think, slightly lower than Amélite’s, but I’m not really sure, I should check (how?). She was in any case completely at ease, and she could afford some first rate acting. Her Erinice showed all the range of emotions, love, rage, vengeance eating her alive, remorse. Her suicide at the end was one of the best invention of the director.
Baritone Thomas Dolié as Abramane was maybe the evening’s greatest success. the voice is beautiful and smooth, and his interpretation was fantastic. He really managed to give us a 3-dimensional image of this satanic priest: his moments of tenderness towards Amélite were among the emotional peaks of the whole performance. Bravo!
The minor characters were all sung by competent singers: confident voices, great style. The chorus was not very enjoyable when they had to sing off-stage, unfortunately, But they also had a chance to sing from the stage boxes, when they were playing the evil warriors: I liked them a lot in this part, they were precise and effective.
All in all, I had a lot of fun, because I love Rameau, and his music came out well respected and not at all ruined. But I would like to understand what happened to Walker: I had heard him a couple of years ago in Platée, again by Rameau, and I thought he sounded considerably better than this….
 For the newbies: in the Baroque period the instruments were tuned at a pitch which varied from place to place, but in general considerably lower than today. Today Baroque orchestras tune their instruments at 415hz, as opposed to the usual 440hz used for more modern music, for philological reasons. So, in practice, if the orchestra tunes at 415, the singers sing half a tone lower than if it tunes at 440. (Thanks to Winckelmann for setting the record straight.)