Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The comic yet unnerving feel of a sketch from Monty Python - Simon Vosecek's Biedermann and the Arsonists

Leigh Melrose - Biedermann and the Arsonists - Independent Opera - (c) Robbie Jack.jpg
Leigh Melrose - Biedermann and the Arsonists
Independent Opera - (c) Robbie Jack
Simon Vosecek Biedermann and the Arsonists; Mark Le Brocq, Alinka Kozari, Leigh Melrose, Matthew Hargreaves, Raphaela Papdakis, Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford, Bradley Travis, Laurence North, dir: Max Hoehn, Britten Sinfonia, cond: Timothy Redmond; Independent Opera at Sadler's Wells
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 14 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Brilliant new production of a striking new satirical opera by young Czech-Austrian composer

To celebrate its 10th birthday, Independent Opera at Sadler's Wells (a company which exists to support young artists) staged the UK premier of Simon Vosecek's opera Biedermann and the Arsonists (Biederman und die Brandstifter) at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells Theatre on Saturday 14 November 2015. The director was Max Hoehn, the 2015 Independent Opera directing fellow. Designed by Jemima Robinson, with lighting by Giuseppe di Iorio and video by Daniel Denton, the opera was sung in David Pountney's English translation with Timothy Redmond conducting the Britten Sinfonia. Mark Le Brocq was Gottlieb Biedermann, Alinka Kozari was his wife Babette, with Leigh Melrose and Matthew Hargreaves as the arsonists Schmitz and Eisenring, and Raphaela Papadakis as Anna. Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford and Bradley Travis were the Firemen, and Laurence North was the Policeman.

Mark Le Brocq, Matthew Hargreaves - Biedermann and the Arsonists - Independent Opera - (c) Robbie Jack.jpg
Mark Le Brocq, Matthew Hargreaves - (c) Robbie Jack
Simon Vosecek is a young Austrian-Czech composer and chansonnier, and his opera Biederman und die Brandstifter was premiered in 2013 by Neue Oper Wien. It is based on a play by the Swiss-German writer Max Frisch, the play was first performed on the radio in 1953 and given its stage premiere in 1958, receiving its UK premiere in 1961 at the Royal Court Theatre in a production directed by Lindsay Anderson. The play was last seen in London (as The Arsonists) in 2007. It is a satirical fable, Frisch called it a 'morality without a moral'.

The anti-hero of the piece is Gottlieb Biedermann, who runs a successful hair tonic business during a period when the city is beset with a spate of arson attacks. His wife Babette, of a highly nervous disposition, is profoundly anxious about the possibility of arson. Schmitz, a supposed wrestler, talks his way into the Biedermann's house and uses emotional blackmail to make them accept him. His friend Willi Eisenring appears, a former waiter, and the two start storing barrels of petrol in the house. Rather than report them, Biedermann appeases the arsonists and pretends to treat it as a joke. The opera ends with a tense dinner for the four and a final explosion.


Simon Vosecek has set Frisch's play virtually complete though omitting the prologue and an epilogue (in which Biedermann and his wife, now in hell, justify themselves to the devil). There is also a chorus of firemen who, ultimately ineffective, comment on the action. Vosecek has set the piece for soloists plus instrumental ensemble (wind heavy with a lot of percussion) here played by 15 players from the Britten Sinfonia. Vosecek writes complex music and the orchestral contribution was extensive, vivid and vibrantly challenging.  Vosecek's vocal writing veered towards the expressionist but the lines seemed to be always singable, and mixed in a lot of spoken phrases.

Johnny Herford, Adam Sullivan, Bradley Travis - Biedermann and the Arsonists - Independent Opera - (c) Robbie Jack
Johnny Herford, Adam Sullivan, Bradley Travis
(c) Robbie Jack
The opera was set in the present, and Jemima Robinson's set placed the instrumental ensemble stage right with the firemen (in a giant toy fire-truck cum bunk-bed) stage left. The Biedermann's pristine, gleaming white house was represented by three linked platforms, the bathroom, living/dining area and attic where the arsonists live and keep their petrol.

Max Hoehn's brilliant, exciting production fully inhabited all of the stage area include the rubbish strewn areas round the platforms. Hoehn and Timothy Redmond had created a superb sense of ensemble with the cast, and concerned gave vibrantly theatrical performances without a weak link. There were surtitles, but David Pountney's translation was clearly audible. The production had just the right sort of stylised feel which sat well with the piece so that at times it had the comic yet unnerving feel of a sketch from Monty Python.

Mark le Brocq was striking indeed in the role of Gottlieb Biedermann, bringing a self-deluding everyman feel to the character whilst attacking the fearsome tenor part, with its thickets of top B flats, with brilliance and confidence. Whilst Biedermann's behaviour was hardly that of a rational human being, Mark le Brocq gave out the wonderful aura of calm sensibleness amidst the riot happening around him. Alinka Kozari was hilariously unnerving as Babette, her highly expressive face adding to the comic feel.

Raphaela Papadakis, Alinka Kozari - Biedermann and the Arsonists - Independent Opera (c) Martin Smith.jpg
Raphaela Papadakis, Alinka Kozari
(c) Martin Smith
Leigh Melrose as Schmitz was wearing the wrestler's equivalent of a fat suite, rendering his physique as comically stylised as the opera. Melrose brought a fine sense of timing and comic presence to the role, whilst capturing the disturbing and threatening undertones. He also looked good in widows weeds, including high heels, when impersonating the widow of one of Biedermann's employees!. Melrose's Schmitz made a fine double act with Matthew Hargreaves' lugubrious Eisenring. Eisenring was clearly the brains of the outfit and Hargreaves brought a nice dead-pan feel to the role.

Raphaela Papadakis was priceless as the put upon maid Anna, a perfect give of a part which she certainly knew what to do with. The three firemen, all alarmingly idiotic, were played with stylised brio by Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford and Bradley Travis, their comments and contributions always brilliantly timed.

When watching the opera, such was the confidence and style of the singers performances that it was the piece's serio-comic message which came over rather than considerations of the vocal difficulty. A tribute to the singers mastery of Simon Vosecek's tricky vocal lines.

Under Timothy Redmond's expert guidance, the Britten Sinfonia made a strong contribution to the proceedings not only with wry comments on proceedings, but with some brilliant realisations of Vosecek's strongly characterised orchestrations, full of noisy interruptions and some highly vibrant writing which made the orchestra much of a character in the proceedings.

That said, I have to confess that I came away from the performance with reservations, not so much about the performance but about the work itself. Max Hoehn's production was pacey with performances full of zip from all the singers. But setting a quick fire play to music inevitably slows things down (singing a text takes longer than speaking it) and to go back to the Monty Python analogy, there were time when the performance felt like a slowed down Monty Python sketch. But perhaps what it needs is further assimilation of  Simon Vosecek's style and familiarity with the opera.

There was not doubt however about the supreme brilliance of Independent Opera's performance, and it certainly brought a striking new voice into the opera theatre.

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