Hans Werner Henze’s opera based on Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae is a strong argument for the staying power of the classic myth. While Barrie Kosky goes for a bare stage, modest backdrop and modern costumes, the performers channel the undiluted rage, seduction and sadness that make this story as captivating as ever two thousand years after its release. The piece feels right at home in Berlin, a place of hedonistic pilgrimage for many, as it follows the tragic consequences of an ascetic king’s refusal to worship Dionysus, god of ecstasy and wine. The source material and the outstanding cast are certainly the opera’s main strengths. However, the direction feels disappointingly restrained given the story’s themes, and by placing a large part of the orchestra on stage, director Barrie Kosky leaves the ensemble little room for a proper Dionysian orgy – the god’s preferred form of tribute. This doesn’t entirely detract from a well-sung, famously inventive and excitingly unpredictable score but in comparison to Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production at last year’s Salzburger Festspiele (which featured two of the same leads, Sean Pannikar as Dionysus and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as the king’s mother), Kosky holds back on the lush madness that is the inspiration for the work in the first place. Less isn’t always more.
The Bassarids | Directed by Barrie Kosky. Komische Oper, Mitte. Nov 2, 5, 10, in English.