Walter Braunfels’s Die Vögel (The Birds) is a very odd duck. Part allegory, part buffo, part mythological fantasy and serious commentary on the hubris of man, it must have been the challenge of a lifetime for stage director Glynis Leyshon to wrangle this opera into some sort of coherence for its Canadian debut by Pacific Opera Victoria on February 22. But she did, turning it into a glittering, dynamic, tour-de-force of an odd duck.
When The Birds premiered in Munich in 1920, conducted by no less than Bruno Walter, it was a huge hit that enjoyed 50 more performances in Munich alone over the next two years. Braunfels’s musical career was on a roll, but the rise of Nazism and his half-Jewish heritage brought that to a crashing halt. He was dismissed from all official offices in 1933 and had his music outlawed in 1938.
Braunfels returned to a life in music after World War II, but never again enjoyed the same level of success. And neither did The Birds. The opera didn’t return to the stage until 1971 and has had only a handful of productions since then. Part of that can be attributed to people simply forgetting about it or a younger generation determining that its blatant German romanticism was just too old fashioned. Another part also has to be that, while the music is lush and melodic—à la Wagner and Strauss—the story really is odd and the structure and pacing downright peculiar. But that does not stop it, at least in this production, from being a huge delight.
Loosely adapted from Aristophanes’s comedy of the same name, The Birds is the story of two men, Loyal Friend, an artist who has been disillusioned by the world of art, and Good Hope, a romantic whose search for love has failed time and time again. Together, they look for a new life in the realm of the birds, which is ruled by Hoopoe, who was once a man. While Loyal Friend convinces Hoopoe to build a city high in the clouds, where the birds will be protected from the Gods who now rule their lives, Good Hope falls deeply in love with a Nightingale. An eagle argues against the new city, but he is out-voted by the wrens and thrushes, etc., and a magnificent bastion goes up. However, just after the birds hold their first wedding in their new home—between an ostrich and a flamingo, no less—Prometheus arises from the underworld to warn that Zeus is furious. The great God sends a ferocious storm down to destroy the city; the birds retreat to their old realm; and the two men depart for theirs: Loyal Friend with no regret about starting a war and no wiser than before, but Good Hope transformed by the Nightingale’s song, which allowed him to see the world through her eyes. And that’s the simplified version.
But far from backing away from all this complexity, Leyshon leaned into it and added yet another layer. Knowing that Braunfels had composed much of the opera while serving in the German army during World War I, she set her production in the wretched trenches of that terrible war, where the composer himself was injured. POV’s The Birds starts somberly, with a soldier thrown backward by a blast, landing splayed down a ladder before his comrades carry him off. When Good Hope returns to the trench to sleep, it is in his dream that he enter a new world filled with birds—all of them, except for the Nightingale, in army uniform under their feathers. While this structure felt like a bit of a wrench against some of the sheer silliness that followed, it did help smooth over some of the story’s improbabilities and made clear from the start that this was not just a comedic romp.
From top to bottom, the large cast of principals was top-notch. In particular, soprano Claire de Sévigné was an elegant Nightingale with a precise, beautiful upper-range; baritone Peter Barrett a Falstaffian Loyal Friend with stage presence to burn; bass-baritone Kyle Albertson commanded in a Wagnerian turn as Prometheus; and tenor Adrian Kramer was a touching (albeit a little stiff) Good Hope, bringing a lovely, clear tone to his lovesick soldier. The chorus, too, has never sounded better: robust, committed, thrilling. And the orchestra, under conductor Timothy Vernon, glittered along with them.
But the evening belonged equally to the design team: Pam Johnson, whose clever set included a magnificent, sparkly nest for the Nightingale that rose high above the trenches; costume designer Nancy Bryant and her striking, evocative headdresses for the birds; lighting designer Eric Champoux and projection designer Emily Cooper who together created one of the most vivid video projections I’ve ever seen: a giant circle in the sky that morphed from static moon to winking man in the moon to a variety of other images that reflected or commented on the story being told below.
While it could be argued that Leyshon stuffed the action with a little too much busyness, her flair for comedy was irresistible. It was wonderful to hear the audience laugh out loud when the flamingo returned mere moments after her wedding pushing a baby carriage, even while that high point was soon followed by the arrival of Prometheus and his lengthy, sombre lecture to the birds that slowed the pace of the opera to a crawl and sidelined our hero, Good Hope, for a significant portion of the last act. But that is a fault of Braunfels’s libretto, which is definitely not this opera’s strong suit. This is an opera where you must sit back and simply let the moods of the composer’s lyrical, sometimes brash, occasionally haunting score wash over you. Who cares what it’s all about.
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PACIFIC OPERA VICTORIA
FEB 22 to 28 2023
BRAUNFELS DIE VÖGEL
CAST AND CREATIVE TEAMS
Nachtigall (Nightingale) Claire de Sévigné
Hoffegut Adrian Kramer
Ratefreund Peter Barrett
Wiedhopf (Hoopoe) Justin Welsh
Prometheus Kyle Albertson
Zaunschüpfer (Wren) Jacqueline Woodley
Drossel (Blackbird or Thrush) Rebecca Cuddy
Adler (Eagle) | Rabe (Raven) | Zeus Nathan Keoughan
The Victoria Symphony
Pacific Opera Chorus and Supernumeraries
Conductor Timothy Vernon
Stage Director Glynis Leyshon
Set Designer Pam Johnson
Costume Designer Nancy Bryant
Lighting Designer Eric Champoux
Projection Designer Emily Cooper
Sound Designer Brooke Maxwell
Choreographer Jacques Lemay
Chorus Master Giuseppe Pietraroia
Accompanist Perri Lo
Stage Manager Sara Robb
Assistant Stage Manager Jordan Guetter
Assistant Stage Manager Katerina Sokyrko
Head Carpenter Phil Shaver
Lead Scenic Carpenter Keith Allan
Head Scenic Artist Jennifer Hedge
Lead Scenic Artist Amy Frueh
Head of Properties Kristen Sands
Lead Property Master Karina Kalvaitis
Head Make-Up Artist Jessica Pratt
Hair and Wig Stylist Cristina Woods
Head of Wardrobe Sandra McLellan
Lead Wardrobe Alice Hawes
OAR Apprentice Stage Manager Kaitlyn Alderson
OAR Set Design Assistant Ryan Cormack
OAR Costume Design Assistant Alaia Hamer
OAR Costume Design Assistant Oriana Camporese
OAR Lighting Design Assistant Emily Trepanier
OAR Video Projection Design Assistant Marc Lavallee
OAR Production Assistant Castor Angus
OAR Makeup Apprentice Dani Parkinson
OAR Hair/Wigs Apprentice Misty Buxton