“Verklungene Feste/The Legend of Joseph”
Vienna State Ballet
Vienna State Opera
February 14, 2015
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2015 by Ilona Landgraf
In June of this year Richard Strauss would have celebrated his 150 birthday. In honor of the occasion the Vienna State Opera, which Strauss directed from 1919 to 1924, staged two works by John Neumeier to Strauss’ music, “Verklungene Feste” and the biblical story “The Legend of Joseph”.
In contrast to “The Legend of Joseph” which has quite some history with the Vienna stage, “Verklungene Feste” was seen for the first time in the Austrian capital. Originally, Neumeier admitted, he had known nothing of the existence of Strauss’ “Verklungene Feste” but in 1978 was made aware of it by August Everding, back then general director of the Bavarian State Opera. Everding deemed “Verklungene Feste” would perfectly complement Neumeier’s already existing “The Legend of Joseph” in a double bill. However, as neither a piano score nor other recorded material of the music was available, the idea was buried in oblivion. In 2008 Neumeier’s “Verklungene Feste” finally premiered in Hamburg – in the meantime recordings of all three Strauss ballets, “The Legend of Joseph (1914), “Schlagobers” (Whipped Cream, 1924) and “Verklungene Feste” (1941) had emerged conducted by a Japanese.
“Verklungene Feste” originated out of collaboration between Strauss and Pia and Pino Mlakar, ballet masters and dancers of the Bavarian State Opera, following the suggestion of the opera’s director Clemens Krauss. Strauss’ composition is based on music by François Couperin (1668 – 1733), composer at the court of Louis XIV in Versailles, whom Strauss came to appreciate during a trip to Paris in 1900. In 1923 Strauss had already arranged twenty-one pieces of Couperin resulting in the ballet “Tanzsuite” with choreography by Heinrich Kröller. In June 2014 Alexei Ratmansky staged a new version of “Tanzsuite” for the Semperoper Ballet Dresden. For 1941’s “Verklungene Feste” Strauss enlarged the existing score with thirteen additional dances by Couperin. More “material to jump around” he should have said. Shortly thereafter further additions were made culminating in “Divertimento” (1943).
For his version of “Verklungene Feste” John Neumeier mainly chose pieces of the “Divertimento” supplemented by a few numbers from the “Tanzsuite”. The Mlakars’ choreography did not prove a lasting success. Consisting of historical step combinations from the late Baroque and the early Romantic period, it was outdated and moreover too plush for Neumeier’s taste. A new, modern approach was tackled instead. Neumeier’s “Verklungene Feste”depicts the gradual disillusionment of a chic, prosperous society. An exact time isn’t given. The events rather belong to today’s world. Albert Kriemler, fashion designer of the Swiss fashion label Akris, created appropriate costumes – plain and highly elegant.
The title – meaning “the party is over” – says it all: At the ballet’s beginning champagne glasses on a long table in the background were already emptied. Two guests – or the hosts? – were left, a man, absorbed in thought, leaning against a brick wall, and a tired woman, resting her head on the table. While the household staff very slowly cleared the table, blew out the candles, removed the tablecloth and even carried out the table, the evening party’s couples returned and found themselves back at the serious side of everyday life. Neumeier’s pas de deux characterize each of the five couples individually. There are various – also cheerful – group dances. Why not instead repeat the partying again? At one point the women, all dressed in gowns in various shades of red walked backwards, while tilting their upper bodies almost horizontally forward. They held the hems of their skirts tightly stretched in front of them as if carrying something mysterious. In the middle of the piece the atmosphere darkened as the three single brick walls shut into one block without a passage and the men suddenly wore jackets reminiscent of military uniforms. In 1941 the party by now was definitely over. Facing something scary at the horizon, all the dancers shrank back until their backs were at the wall. Though crouching, turning away, covering their eyes, they couldn’t escape.
Maybe due to the fact that the performance was broadcasted on the internet via live stream the audience was unusually restless at first. It took some time until proper concentration arose. Also the dancers needed some minutes to make the piece flow. Unlike the women who were more confident from the beginning, at first the men seemed unremarkably bland. But step by step they made themselves seen and subsequently cut fine figures. Visibly enjoying their dancing Neumeier’s style seemed as if it were everyone’s daily bread.
In “The Legend of Joseph” the party – albeit another kind of party – was over too, but the finale strongly pointed towards the path of redemption. The story is about the Old Testament’s Joseph, second son of Jacob, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery to Potiphar, the administrator of the Egyptian kings’ finances. Potiphar’s wife casts a covetous eye on him but seeing her advances being rejected becomes furious. She falsely accuses Joseph of attempted rape whereupon he is cast into prison.
Strauss’ engagement with the subject had been initiated by Serge Diaghilev and the coterie of the Ballets Russes. Harry Graf Kessler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal collaborated on the libretto. Vaslav Nijinsky was in charge of the choreography and destined to dance the role of Joseph. Ida Rubinstein was cast as Potiphar’s wife. Given that in 1913 Nijinsky’s “Jeux” already had had contemporary costumes, Léon Bakst’s costumes and José-Maria Sert’s set were reactionary: a sumptuous, gold-laden style, of the kind the Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese could have used to impress the audience at the Parisian premiere anew. It was to be the last staged debauchery shortly before World War I broke out. But things turned out differently. First Strauss’ and Nijinsky’s cooperation didn’t go smoothly. Then, after marrying Romola de Pulszky, Nijinsky had to leave the Ballets Russes. Mikhail Fokine took over as choreographer (raising the question how much of the choreography is Nijinsky’s, how much is Fokine’s?), choosing the young Léonide Massine to dance Joseph next to the singer Marie Kouznetsoff as Potiphar’s wife. Prior to that Rubinstein had canceled as well. Alas – the premiere was a flop.
In 1922 “The Legend of Joseph” was first seen in Vienna. Strauss aimed to rehabilitate the piece during his directorship at the opera and moreover implement his own ideas of how to reform the art of ballet. In Heinrich Kröller he found an open-minded and compliant choreographer. Kröller’s version was later replaced by Erika Hanka’s. Though not interested in the project at first Neumeier finally decided to choreograph “The Legend of Joseph” for the Vienna State Ballet in 1977. Impressively bold he refused to use the designated cast for the leading roles – Mikhail Baryshnikov (Joseph) and Maria Callas (Potiphar’s Wife). Instead he chose twenty-one year old Kevin Haigen from his Hamburg Ballet ensemble and the Afro-American dancer Judith Jamison, back then a star of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Its fabulous success proved him right. Neumeier completely replaced statuesque poses and mime scenes, common elements in Kessler’s and Hofmannsthal’s original, with dance. His focus was on the developmental process of Joseph from being a child with a primordial power, to the chosen one who is torn between the material, human world (Potphar’s wealth, his wife’s allure) and a metaphysical realm (his predictive dreams of an angel). Joseph has the possibility to chose but is also forced to chose.
In 1977 the costumes were by Ernst Fuchs. In 2008, when restaging the piece (in a double bill with “Verklungene Feste”) for his Hamburg company, Neumeier decided on a new design. The set – created by Neumeier himself – uses the brick walls of “Verklungene Feste”. Albert Kriemler’s puristic costumes for the court society resemble the preceding ballet’s evening dresses. Joseph and his angel wear short tunic shirts kept together by small ties at the sides.
As in 1977 Kevin Haigen was in on the current production. Not on stage this time but backstage rehearsing the Vienna company. Demis Cherevychko danced Haigen’s former role, Joseph. A nimble mover with soft features Cherevychko was convincing as the unawakened, natural young Joseph discovering the power of his sex appeal. Yet I missed the traces of ripening, of an inner transformation to manhood at the final apotheosis. Or maybe this is because Joseph’s journey, his mission, started only at the end and the end thus is only the beginning?
The twenty-six-year old Rebecca Horner, like Jamison an Afro-American, was Potiphar’s Wife. Aloof and arrogant, supersaturated by the comforts of a wealthy lifestyle, her eyes revealed an inner void. Barefooted Horner danced expressively, albeit her outward conduct wasn’t always backed by inner strength. She played the role – and that remarkably well – but hadn’t fully become one with the spoilt, unfulfilled woman. On a few occasions I was wondering why Potiphar (gentle Roman Lazik) didn’t man up and slap her to restore the home’s order.
Was Potiphar’s Wife finally chastened? After all, she had prevented Joseph from further torture and, enclosed between him and the angel (Kirill Kourlaev, a strong, competent guard), was present at the beginning of his apotheosis. When standing alone center stage at the end and looking towards the horizon, Potiphar’s Wife seemed lonesome and serious but not enlightened. It was Horner’s first leading role. She has promising talent which hopefully will be nurtured.
Finnish Mikko Franck guided the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera safely through Strauss’ colorful, at times dramatic score. A coherent, thoroughly thought out program that was enthusiastically applauded by the audience!
|Links:||Vienna State Ballet’s Homepage|
|Photos:||1.||Davide Dato (on February 14th Greig Matthews danced this role) and Liudmila Konovalova, “Verklungene Feste“ by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|2.||Kiyoka Hashimoto and Masayu Kimoto, “Verklungene Feste“ by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|3.||Ensemble, “Verklungene Feste“ by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|4.||Denys Cherevychko (Joseph) and Flavia Soares (Guest of Potiphar), “The Legend of Joseph” by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|5.||Roman Lazik (Potiphar) and Rebecca Horner (Potiphar’s Wife), “The Legend of Joseph” by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|6.||Rebecca Horner (Potiphar’s Wife), “The Legend of Joseph” by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|7.||Rebecca Horner (Potiphar’s Wife) and Denys Cherevychko (Joseph), “The Legend of Joseph” by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|8.||Kirill Kourlaev (Angel) and Denys Cherevychko (Joseph), “The Legend of Joseph” by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|9.||Denys Cherevychko (Joseph), Rebecca Horner (Potiphar’s Wife) and Kirill Kourlaev (Angel), “The Legend of Joseph” by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|10.||Rebecca Horner (Potiphar’s Wife), Denys Cherevychko (Joseph) and Kirill Kourlaev (Angel), “The Legend of Joseph” by John Neumeier, Vienna State Ballet 2015|
|all photos © Vienna State Ballet, Michael Pöhn 2015|