Prague Ballet and Berlin Opera: In this 125th anniversary year of Prokofiev’s birth, music organizations are taking the opportunity to program his works. The State Opera in Prague, mounted a production of arguably the composers most popular ballet, “Romeo and Juliet.” Performed at the beautiful, if a bit tattered, State Opera House, this production stared Ondrej Vinklant as Romeo, and Alina Nanu as Juliet. Aya Watanabe danced the role of Queen Mab. The State Opera Orchestra, conducted by Sergei Vaclav Zahradnik, was in the pit. The scenery was clever. Two all black floor-to-ceiling profiles of the two main characters were at the rear of the stage. They were moved closer together and further apart during the performance. When touching they were two lovers kissing, when moved closer together the opening between them appeared more like a key hole or doorway through which some characters entered the stage. There were also large metal stands that lined stage right and left; the dancers moved through them, but also up and down stairs that were attached. It was spare set decoration but highly effective. When needed, “alters” were moved in to support the two young lovers and they lay dying. The orchestra was wonderful; while it was small, the acoustics of the hall are such that it did not sound undersized or under-powered and it handled with technical challenges of the music with ease. And when needed, it was able to generate quite a forte, in spite of its small size. All of the dancers were top flight, and their ensemble dancing was strong. Mr. Ninklant was outstanding as Romeo. He is physically strong and muscular and is a joy to watch in his lifts and jumps. Because of his strength, he can fall, for example, without having to quickly brace himself to avoid injury. He falls naturally and believable. He was really quite accomplished. Ms. Watanabe was a beguiling and dangerous Queen Mab. She was simultaneously slinking, sexy, and terrifying. She moved rapidly around the stage, but always very in control. Ms. Nanu was a good Juliet, but in contract to Ninklant and Watanabe, she seemed merely adequate. One noticeable characteristic of this company was that its dancers never seemed to be setting up their next move before the ended the one they were in. Their dancing was smooth and flowing. This was a powerful performance, played to a nearly full house, with fine choreography and strong orchestral accompaniment. The frequently heard Prokofiev music sounded fresh, with exciting orchestral effects very well-played by the orchestra. The audience, dressed to the nines, was youngish and cool and very grateful for the performance. This made for a great night at the ballet.
Deutshce Oper Berlin, located in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin, mounted a grand performance of Bizet’s “Carmen.” The opera house itself is a rather boring building that would look comfortable in a 1980’s US shopping mall, acting as a department store. It is mostly a cube-shaped building with blank walls on three sides, with the remaining side having three tiers of large windows. The interior is plain, and is dominated by dark wood paneling that looked like it had escaped from my parent’s 1960’s-era basement. There are several cafe/bars throughout the first level, and they were mobbed with patrons during intermissions. The auditorium was equally plain, with the oppressive brown paneling on three sides. The light fixtures looked like large un-shaded electric bulbs. In addition, the auditorium was stuffy and way-too-warm. The titled character was sung by Agunda Kulaeva, who was magnificent. He voice was pure and never strained. Her acting was insouciant, yet beguiling. This was a grade A performance, both for singing and for acting. Don Jose was sung by Gaston Rivero, who has a fine voice, but at times his acting seemed a bit off. At one point the character throws himself at Carmen’s feet, and Mr. Rivero looked more like a child having a tantrum than a man pleading to his love. Derek Welton played the role of Escamillo. He seemed a bit tall to be a matador, and his diction became very muddy the more rounded his mouth became. Norah Amsellem was an effective Micaela, but her voice became a bit reedy when she was required to sing forte. This was a stark a bleak “Carmen” unlike the more romanticized version we sometimes experience in the US. But this was a spellbinding performance that reminded one of why grand opera can deliver such a dramatic punch. The Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, conducted by Nicholas Carter, was outstanding. It was full and rich, with sweet strings and warm winds. The brass was spectacular, but never overwhelming. This opera orchestra is the equivalent of a major symphony in the US, based on skill, interpretation, and performance. There were a few things that were troublesome in this performance, especially given the stature of the Deutsche Oper. In the second act, there was a row of stones in the front of the stage. At one point, Escamillo raised his foot to rest it on the stones, but his foot missed its mark and fell to the floor. Twitters of laughter were heard in the audience. In addition, the singers were to step over the rocks and down two steps to stand in front of the wall. Unfortunately, the steps were too tall, so everyone had to slow down stepping over in order to ensure that they would not fall. One more step would have made this action flow so much better. In the third scene, one of the set’s doors would not close properly, so back stage movements could be easily seen. One of the chorus members had to get to the door to pull it firmly shut. At the end of the performance, somehow Carmen and Don Jose ended up in front of the stage curtain, to awkwardly accept applause. When the entire cast finally came back for their bows, their lines were terribly crooked, and some went to the wrong side of the stage, which left other confused as to where they should stand. The final blunder was when Maestro Carter came to accept his applause. He graciously spread his arms out to have the audience recognize the orchestra. Unfortunately, the orchestra members were already packed up and gone, which resulted in Carter pointing to an empty pit! The Maestro seemed perplexed. In spite of these unsophisticated mistakes, it was a fine performance that successfully highlighted the acting and voice of Ms. Roberts. It was grand opera at its grandest.