Reawakening the Antichrist (and Other Lost Opera Gems)

BERLIN — The Whore of Babylon, in a grotesque fat suit, belts out a hymn to hedonism midway through the Deutsche Oper’s new production of “Antikrist” here.

Ersan Mondtag’s riotously colorful, boldly stylized staging of what this work’s Danish composer, Rued Langgaard, called a “church opera” is a near-breathless swirl. Nodding to various early-20th-century art movements, including Symbolism, Expressionism and the Bauhaus, it is only the third full staging of the work, which was written and revised between 1921 and 1930, but which remained unperformed at the time of Langgaard’s death, in 1952.

Inspired by the Book of Revelation, “Antikrist” premieres Jan. 30 and runs through Feb. 11. It is the latest in a series of operatic rediscoveries at the Deutsche Oper, which, in recent decades, has made a point of highlighting works from outside the canon. In recent seasons, it has lavished attention on Meyerbeer’s “Le Prophète” as part of a series devoted to that once-renowned 19th-century composer, as well as two early-20th-century titles, Korngold’s “Das Wunder der Heliane” and Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg.”

A scene from “Der Zwerg,” another rarely performed work that was revived at the Deutsche Oper.Credit…Monika Rittershaus

Along with the Deutsche Oper’s commitment to commissioning new operas, these rediscoveries are a way of refreshing and enlarging opera’s notoriously narrow repertoire. An essentially unknown work like “Antikrist” presents a host of logistical challenges, from training singers to attracting audiences, but it can provide its director with rare creative license. The absence of entrenched performing traditions can be artistically liberating.

“It’s totally crazy,” Mondtag, who also designed the sets and helped design the costumes, said of the piece. “It’s something between Schoenberg and Wagner, and like a sacred opera without linear narration. So you have the freedom to do whatever you want.”

Mondtag, one of Germany’s leading young avant-garde directors, was putting the finishing touches on “Antikrist” when the pandemic locked the country down for the first time, in March 2020. Since then, he’s staged two other rarely performed 20th-century works, Schreker’s “Der Schmied von Gent” and Weill’s “Silbersee,” both for Vlaamse Opera in Belgium. A relative newcomer to opera, Mondtag said it was hardly surprising that he’s been getting assignments like these, rather than war horses like “Tosca.”

Mondtag onstage at the Deutsche Oper. He says he didn’t set out to become a specialist in unknown operas: “It just happened that way.”Credit…Gordon Welters for The New York Times

“It’s considered more experimental to do unknown things,” Mondtag said. In his short time working in opera, he added, he has acquired something of a reputation as an “expert of unstageable or unknown operas. I didn’t choose that; it just happened that way.”

When the Deutsche Oper returned to live performance in the summer of 2020, it concentrated on a new production of Wagner’s four-opera “Ring.” All four titles premiered at the house during the pandemic, but after the “Ring” played its last performances earlier this month, the company turned its attention to the delayed “Antikrist” premiere.

“It’s such impressive music that I think it’s necessary to do it,” said Dietmar Schwarz, the Deutsche Oper’s general director. He added that while he would love it if Mondtag’s production inspired new interest in “Antikrist,” he was mostly focused on finding a curious and open audience in Berlin.

“We’re not necessarily doing it for the survival of this old opera,” he said.

Isolated productions of rediscoveries rarely catch fire. One exception was David Pountney’s acclaimed staging of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s punishing 1965 work “Die Soldaten,” which was first seen in 2006 at the Ruhrtriennale festival in Germany and traveled to the Park Avenue Armory in New York two years later. A spate of productions followed in Berlin; Munich; Salzburg, Austria; and elsewhere.

A scene from a 2008 performance of “Die Soldaten” at the Park Avenue Armory. Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s opera had been revived at the Ruhrtrienniale festival in Germany two years before.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Yet even if rediscoveries are confined to a single production, German opera administrators have increasingly made them a priority. This contrasts with the United States: These days, it is more common for the Metropolitan Opera or the Lyric Opera of Chicago to present an attention-generating world premiere than to dust off a forgotten work. (Leon Botstein’s full-production revivals at Bard College in New York are a notable exception.)

“There is a treasure trove of stuff out there,” said Barrie Kosky, who leads the Komische Oper in Berlin. Since arriving at that company in 2012, he has scored some of his greatest hits with productions of long overlooked works, including operettas by German-speaking Jewish composers like Paul Abraham and Oscar Straus.

“Let’s face it, we can’t survive on just a diet of the 20 most famous titles,” Kosky said.

“Of course, it’s always a risk because sometimes you bring back a piece and it doesn’t work,” he said. Or, he added: “You say: ‘Look, we’re bringing this back. It’s not a perfect piece, but this score is still worth hearing.’ I think that’s also very legitimate and valid; I don’t think everything has to be a masterpiece.”

Kosky pointed to his own eclectic programming at the Komische Oper — where, before the pandemic, the house was selling 90 percent of its seats — as evidence that theaters can be filled with works by composers other than Mozart and Puccini.

“All of that’s been blown out of the water when I see that we can sell out ‘The Bassarids’ completely,” he said, referring to Hans Werner Henze’s 1965 opera, which Kosky staged in 2019. “Or we can have incredible advance sales for an operetta where people don’t even know the title or the music.”

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, center, in “The Bassarids,” a sold-out production at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2019.Credit…Monika Rittershaus

When Matthias Schulz, the general director of the Staatsoper in Berlin, programmed a Baroque festival in his first season leading the company, he didn’t go for the usual suspects.

“I wanted to do everything except Handel,” he said.

The centerpiece of the festival’s first edition, in 2018, was Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie.” Since then, two rarities have followed: Scarlatti’s “Il Primo Omicidio” and, this past fall, Campra’s “Idoménée,” far more obscure than Mozart’s later “Idomeneo.”

Hidden in the corners of opera history, Schulz said, “there are real masterworks and we have a responsibility to find them. We need to convince the audience that what we do is interesting, and to challenge them.”

A scene from a 2021 production of Campra’s “Idomenée” at the Staatsoper in Berlin.Credit…Bernd Uhlig

That process looks different in Berlin, with a rich opera landscape thanks to three full-time companies, than it does in smaller cities. Laura Berman, the artistic director of the Staatsoper in Hanover, in northern Germany, said that drawing an audience with obscure titles can be a challenge. But, she added, the right work and the right production can also put a smaller house on the map.

In her first season in Hanover, Berman scored a hit with Halévy’s religious potboiler “La Juive” — which, like Meyerbeer’s grand operas, faded from the repertory by the early 20th century. Lydia Steier’s production conjured a historical survey of antisemitism, starting in post-World War II America and working back to 15th-century Konstanz, Germany, the setting specified by the libretto. The 2019 staging was acclaimed, and helped the company earn the title of Opera House of the Year from Oper Magazine.

Berman said she wasn’t surprised that a production about the need for tolerance had resonated in Hanover, a religiously and ethnically mixed city she that called “extremely diverse.”

“People have always talked in the theater about ‘hooks’: how to get the audience hooked into going to see something,” she added. “I truly feel today that the topic is major, especially for younger audiences, more than the title.”

A scene from the Staatsoper in Hanover’s 2019 production of Halévy’s “La Juive.”Credit…Sandra Then

She added that works like “La Juive” were excellent for convincing people “that an opera house is a forum for social and political discussion — which, in the end, it always has been, for at least several hundred years.”

The Staatsoper’s next big premiere in Hanover will be Marschner’s “Der Vampyr” in late March — directed by Mondtag. “His visual world is really special,” Berman said. “But for me, the main factor is being able to think through works and being able to bust them open.”

That is less “terrifying,” she added, “if you do a work where there are no preconceived notions.”

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