Rotterdam’s avant-garde opera festival emerges this year, with a new name, bright and shiny from the ashes of the disaster that was 2020. Now known as The O. Festival, the erstwhile OperaDagen offers dozens of performances which can be seen at numerous locations around the city, ranging from industrial shabby to concert hall chic.
The best thing about O. is its diversity. This aspect is, I suspect, the reason for changing the name. OperaDagen was maybe thought too specific, leading to preconceptions that maybe the shows wouldn’t be over until the fat lady had sung. But opera’s normal, conventional if you like, canon barely gets a look in. The seven day festival’s events include performance art, theatre, music, films, pop-ups and much more. Their link to opera with a capital O is often tenuous, without a diva in sight, so you need a broad and open mind, one which is ready and keen to embrace the innovative and exciting.
Here are the reviews from the shows we have seen. Most recent first . .
BLOEMENDUEL in De Doelen Grote Zaal
Tonight Louis van Beek and Steef de Jong endearingly revealed their grand ambitions for their new operetta. Bloemendual would play all the greatest opera houses of the world with thousand piece orchestras and ballets. Lavish scenery and costumes would depict the fin du siècle Parisian streets in minute detail. Their masterpiece would be an all-female epic with a cast of eighty. No expense would be spared. That is their dream – but for the moment there is just . . . well, just the two of them to explain how wonderful it would all be and to whet our appetites with a few choice extracts.
Bloemenduel is based on the true story of a princess and a countess in 1892 Vienna who compete to do the flower arrangements for an exhibition. Soon their false smiles turn to open hostilities and they challenge each other to a duel, forbidden to both men and women at the time. The duel takes place in Liechtenstein with the women brandishing swords, bare breasted (apparently so as to avoid contamination from clothing in case of cuts). The burgers of Liechtenstein were scandalised, but the two women were reconciled.
In their show, more cabaret than operetta, Louis van Beek and Steef de Jong, elegantly dressed in white tie and tails, operated their mini stage set much as a Pollocks Theatre with various backdrops to denote locations. They sang engagingly and acted out a variety of imagined characters.
At the end there was a short preview of the duo‘s show planned for May next year at the Nieuwe Luxor in Rotterdam. For this they were joined by baritone Alex Klaasen with whom Steef de Jong gave a beautiful rendition of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers duet. Very enjoyable and entertainment. Astrid Burchardt 29th August 2021
RIGOLETTO at De Doelen Arcadis zaal
Opera, like Shakespeare, provides the ideal opportunity for an imaginative director to show his metal. You can do it in modern dress, you can have spectacular sets and visuals and you can even have a bit of gender flexibility – there is no end to the possibilities. One thing I had not seen was an opera done as a play with the two best songs, sung by real singers, left in just to remind everyone what they are watching.
This is exactly what happened with the Belgian Deschonecompagnie & Comp. Marius production of Verdi’s Rigoletto which took place in one of the side rooms of Rotterdam’s flagship concert hall. Staged with minimum décor – a door, a stepladder and an upright piano on a revolve, director Tom Goossens managed to squeeze every gram of drama, pathos and comedy from his five companions. The two real singers were soprano Esther Kouwenhoven and tenor Lars Corijn who gave an excellent, animated rendition of La donna è mobile which I really enjoyed. Wouter Deltour provided the piano accompaniment, joining in the action when necessary and Stefaan Degand was a rather brutish and menacing Rigoletto. Michael Hasted 29th August 2021
Kissi! Kissi! at De Doelen
Jacques Offenbach, darling of the Belle Epoche and composer of nearly one hundred operettas, is perhaps best known for the Galop Infernal, the music always associated with the Can Can. And it was Offenbach who was the inspiration for tonight’s event. I wasn’t really a fan of Offenbach or opéra bouffe until I saw the extraordinary staging of his, Le Roi Carotte by the Opéra de Lyon .
Mixing and matching a variety of styles and sources Thomas Kokkelmans has created a little gem with Kissi! Kissi!
The plot is almost a Shakespearean comedy of cross dressing/gender mistaken identities, (in today’s parlance ‘gender-fluid’). The action takes place on the fictional island of Tulipan and is delivered in quasi Molièresque French with as much spoken word as singing. The music, as unapologetically frilly as the words, is a skillful mix of styles, ranging from Viennese to pseudo Tirolian – all these Thomas Kokkelmans has welded together with brio.
The story revolves around the pompous Prime Minister whose son has been brought up as a girl and the despotic Duke whose daughter has been reared as a boy. Fun and confusion abound when the two off-springs fall in love and their respective parents are forced to confess their deception.
Both Helene Bracke in the role of Théodorine, a kind of Cindy Lauper in her heyday, and Annelies van Gramberen, playing her tomboyish ‘girl’ with an obsession for crashing around on drums, deserve special mention for their excellent performances. The Ensemble du Beurre et des Oeufs played with the appropriate Belle Epoche zest with only ten musicians. A very upbeat, enjoyable evening after the many dark theatre days. Astrid Burchardt 29th August 2021
DOLLS at De Doelen
This was truly, truly awful. I am not going to waste another thirty minutes of my life writing about it.
DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS by Aïda Gabriëls / Oester at Annabel
The story of Salome is one which has gripped the imagination of generations. Artists, writers and musicians have revelled, either in the salaciousness of the Dance of the Seven Veils or the gory details of John the Baptist’s severed head. Whichever way you look at it, there is a lot of juicy mileage still to be had.
This was demonstrated tonight by Flemish director Aïda Gabriëls in her interdisciplinary opera, Dance of the Seven Veils. Set in a huge black box which normally functions as a night club or rock venue, the playing area was draped with huge white sheets. As we entered, the scene was set by a couple slowly dancing while in the corner another curled figure patiently waited.
This was a spectacular show with an exciting and evocative soundscape supplied live mainly by Pieter-Jan Van Assche on a double bass linked to a looper and Colin H. van Eeckhout, frontman of the Belgian band Amenra, on hurdy-gurdy and odd bits of percussion. Mr van Eeckhout also provided a lot of the vocal work along with soprano Astrid Stockman who, as well as providing some classical opera moments, also managed to sound a lot like Kate Bush in one section. Visually the piece was stunning with atmospheric ever-changing lighting always picking out the constantly moving Salome figure. There were some very nice moments – I really liked the grape-treading sequence which morphed into jive dancing, as well as the song delivered while standing on a pile of books which had been arranged by the ubiquitous, and rather sinister, stage-manager figure. Excellent. Michael Hasted 25th August 2021
THE RING OF RESILIENCE
The grand opening of the Festival took place the grand Grote Zaal of De Doelen to a packed house – if you include the high proportion of forbidden seats due to the on-going restrictions – and demonstrated from the word go that diversity was the key.
The Ring of Resilience was, unashamedly, a full length film and was billed as Rotterdam’s version of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung. And very much a home-grown project it was too, with the participation of local multi-talented Yorick Heerkens, the Codarts Symphony Orchestra, local children etc and locations around the city.
Water is an important part in The Ring – the mighty Rhine in the Wagner version, the grey North Sea in this. The opening scene is a vast deserted beach with the waves gently lapping the sand. In the distance a tiny figure emerges from the water. As he approaches we see it is, in fact, a frogman who reveals himself to be our main protagonist. Over one eye, instead of a patch, he has crystal. Now, I must confess to not being familiar with the work of Mr Heerkens but he is an imposing figure with his long blond hair rather putting me in mind of a bass player in an 80s heavy metal rock band.
Also prominent are the Valkyrie, here called The Noms, and representing the past, present and future. Striking tough they were, they were very much preaching doom and gloom, making it clear that the tree of life from whence we came has been systematically destroyed and that the very waters that sustain us, are threatening to obliterate us. The message was very clear, mankind in his complacency and vanity is destroying his world. There was one great line I picked up about man thinking he is flying whereas in fact, he is falling.
There is some amazing imagery in the film, the later beach scenes putting me in mind of Fellini and even Mad Max, and some wonderful music, both Wagner and original. The final segment of the film is dominated by strange creatures in weird costumes juxtaposing with a group of five white costumed and hooded young children – our hope for the future.
The Ring of Resilience was a spectacular film with an important message and a worthy and exciting opening event for this year’s O. Festival Michael Hasted 24th August 2021
This week marked a welcome return to Operdagen, sorry, the O. Festival. As with all experimental or innovative events, you are going to get the occasional weed growing among the flowers, that’s par for the course. Innovation is inherently dangerous but is a prerequisite of all art. If you don’t make mistakes, you ain’t getting it right. But on the whole it was the flowers that thrived and the weeds will, hopefully, soon be forgotten. Guy Coolen and his team must be congratulated for putting the Festival together in such difficult times, uncertain that it would ever take place. Welcome back O. Festival. I’m sure next year will be even bigger and better.