To quote the film This is Spinal Tap: “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” Especially in opera, being playful runs the risk of embracing wholesale absurdity. Stefan Herheim is a master at this balancing act.
The Norwegian director’s 2012 production of Handel’s Serse (Xerxes auf Deutsch) is one of the Komische Oper’s biggest triumphs. Three years earlier, Herheim caused a mini-scandal at the Staatsoper with a bold Lohengrin that never saw a single revival. Like that earlier staging, there is much humor and pranksterish behavior to this Baroque outing. But he tempers it with an ironic elegance that saves the evening from devolving into ridiculousness. His production embraces the sublime mixture of seria and buffo elements that puzzled the work’s original London audience in 1738 and partially accounted for its virtual disappearance for nearly 200 years.
Herheim’s overarching concept is a mise en abyme. Two main sets are visible at various angles of the frequently rotating stage: the first shows a versatile stage (with a descending curtain and proscenium arch) decked-out with hand painted backdrops for every conceivable occasion. The overall aesthetic could be described as storybook commedia dell’arte. The reverse side of the set depicts a spacious and mostly bare backstage area. The characters transition easily between these two worlds, adopting a self-consciously theatrical bearing when on the stage-within-a-stage. Granted it wasn’t a terribly original idea; but his singers move so determinedly and seamlessly between the two levels of the production’s reality (which mirrored, to a point, the libretto’s mixture of humor and gravitas), that the concept never wears thin.
Indeed, Herheim has so many dramatically exciting ideas up his sleeve (as well as a couple of duds, including a disturbing and totally unnecessary rape scene), that the production seems to run on its own joyous energy. Heike Scheele’s fanciful sets for country, city and ocean scenes and Gesine Völlm’s ornately detailed baroque costumes are consistently dazzling.