Connor Enticknap Wiener KammerOrchesters Photo Armin Bardel

Mare Nostrum is child’s play at Theater an der Wien Kammeroper

Theater-an-der-Wien-logoThere is a quaintness to Mauricio Kagel’s Mare Nostrum (1975, rev. 1997). Its heavy-handed metaphors, deliberately obscured story line, and lack of musically-cathartic moments make it representative of the pratfalls for which contemporary opera is often derided. The story is a “what if” scenario, reimagining colonial times as if explorers from the Americas had landed in Europe, colonizing and terrorising various Mediterranean cultures. It’s an interesting idea, which sadly makes only obvious statements about the evils of colonialism. But this work, which was largely dismissed by a sparse and grumbling audience at the Theater an der Wien Kammeroper on February 13, 2014 in Vienna, has a child-like charm which should not be overlooked. In their new production, the Kammeroper has brought out the Dada-like intuitiveness in Kagel’s opera, while failing to solve the issue of its slow, rambling pace.

Ben Connor (Amazonier), Rupert Enticknap (Europäer) and members of the Wiener KammerOrchesters - Photo by Armin Bardel

Ben Connor (Amazonier), Rupert Enticknap (Europäer) and members of the Wiener KammerOrchesters – Photo by Armin Bardel

From a purely musical perspective, this is a stellar production. Countertenor Rupert Enticknap, with his rich, round and flexible voice, shone as the European. Australian baritone Ben Connor deftly navigated the tricky world between spoken narration and singing. Members of the Wiener KammerOrchester, under Gelsomino Rocco, played with perfection and subtlety. Four of the six orchestra members were placed on platforms in each corner of the stage, amplifying the echo effects in Kagel’s score. His light-as-air orchestrations were enhanced by this physical space, bringing out the gentle texture changes between guitars, harp, cello and percussion.

This two-man opera is at its best when viewed as young boys playing pretend. One (the Amazon) has a clear picture in his mind of how the story is to unfold, and the other (the European) willingly plays along. They change costumes by throwing on old clothes that are too large, make funny noises with their mouths and voices, play accordions or drums badly, and fall into long periods of daydreaming. They use rain sticks (oh quaint relic of the 70s!) to paddle themselves across the ocean, and inhabit female characters with a child’s lack of gender-based inhibition. As an audience member, participating in the performance as a parent would watch children reenact a story makes the political message of the opera seem less heavy-handed.

Ben Connor (Amazonier), Rupert Enticknap (Europäer) and members of the Wiener KammerOrchesters - Photo by Armin Bardel

Ben Connor (Amazonier), Rupert Enticknap (Europäer) and members of the Wiener KammerOrchesters – Photo by Armin Bardel

The staging for this production enhanced the world of childlike play that Kagel created. Candy-pink foliage (ferns. giant palms, and strange flowers) littered the stage, and the ocean was a pit filled with chunks of silver tinsel. The European’s costumes could have been pulled from a child’s trunk of discarded adult clothes, and the Amazon’s drawn-on beard had a homespun feel. Video projections also added to the effect, bringing us inside the minds of the performers as they imagined great seas, rain, thunderstorms, and blood being shed.

The production stalled, though, as the 90-minute production wore on. While Enticknap and Connor both played their own parts with intensity, they had no spark between them, and rarely acknowledged, or played off of, the energy of the other performer. Both performances were dramatically very serious, which dragged down the potentially mocking nature of the cultural critique. Kagel’s sparse orchestration, interesting at first in its lack of density, becomes monotonous as the show wears on; there was no effort on the part of any of the performers to ignite any new musical or visual spark later in the piece. Playing it safe in this sense added to the staleness of the work.

Ben Connor (Amazonier), Rupert Enticknap (Europäer) - Photo by Armin Bardel

Ben Connor (Amazonier), Rupert Enticknap (Europäer) – Photo by Armin Bardel

Still, there were many captivating moments in this production, and it stood well on the strength of the musical performances. While there is no great bravery involved in a critique of a social structure that was eradicated a few generations ago (though the horrors of colonialism still live on, long after the colonisers have left), Kagel’s work is an important link in the development of political opera. This new production displays the work well, and shows us both the strengths and weakness of this kind of playful experimentation in opera.