Friday, July 11, 2008

Hamburg State Opera

The Hamburgische Staatsoper (Hamburg State Opera) is one of the leading opera companies in Germany, home to a large resident opera company and a large resident ballet company.

Opera in Hamburg dates back to 1678, when the “Opern-Theatrum” was inaugurated. The Opern-Theatrum was not a court theater, but the first public opera house in Germany, established by music-loving citizens of Hamburg. It remains the only German opera house of significance not founded as a court opera.

Until the 19th Century, Hamburg resisted the dominance of the Italian opera repertory—it concentrated on staging German works, and rapidly became the leading musical center of the German Baroque. In 1703, George Frideric Handel was engaged as a violinist and harpsichordist at the theater, and performances of his operas soon followed. In 1721, Georg Philipp Telemann, a central figure of the German Baroque, joined the Hamburg Opera, and became a leading figure in the theater.

A new, larger theater was constructed in 1826, on the site of the current building. It served for the next 117 years. Music directors in the old house included Hans Von Bulow, Gustav Mahler, Karl Bohm and Eugen Jochum. Otto Klemperer was on the conducting staff early in the 20th century.

World premieres at the house have included Handel’s “Nerone” in 1705, Busoni’s “Die Brautwahl” in 1912 and Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” in 1920.

The auditorium and front façade of the theater were completely destroyed by bombs in 1943. The theater’s fire curtain, made of iron, prevented the destruction of the backstage portion of the building. Work on rebuilding the Staatsoper began in 1952. The current Staatsoper reopened in 1955.

The exterior of the present building is functional. The theater is located in one of Hamburg’s business districts, and it is almost indistinguishable from surrounding office buildings. Indeed, one might pass the house without even realizing that it is an opera house, in large part because the building is not set back from the street.

The exterior of the building is somewhat more impressive at night, because the lights shining through the windows draw the eye into the building, at all levels.

The interior, however, is another matter. It contains one of the world’s great opera house auditoriums, simply designed, elegantly proportioned, brilliantly lighted, and suggestive of a great sense of occasion. It puts the Metropolitan Opera House, with its vulgarity and gaudiness, to shame.

We attended a performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in the house. It was a new production, but we were unaware of this fact prior to ordering our tickets online. The production was different, but not unduly bizarre.

We sat in one of the loges on the right side of the house (from the onstage vantage of the photo below, our loge was on the left). We had the loge to ourselves, and we loved it. The loges are arranged so that loge patrons may not observe patrons in other loges on the same side of the house. This trick is accomplished, in part, by very, very high seatbacks, which block the views of persons sitting in other loges. It creates an impression of great privacy and cosiness—and the seats are very comfortable, unlike the seats in so many European opera houses.

From our experience, the Hamburg State Opera had a very good audience. The audience was extremely well-behaved. The audience members were quiet and attentive, and held their applause until the end of each act. The audience did not applaud scenery, and the audience did not applaud individual arias. There was rhythmic clapping, European-style, at the conclusion of the opera (amidst the booing, inevitable in any European theater).

The public areas were spacious but spare. It was the public areas that most reflected the era of the building’s design, the 1950’s. The lower-level bar, with white, rounded, contoured fixtures and designs, was the worst offender, seemingly inspired by a Douglas Sirk film.

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