December 4, 2011
“Liliom” (John Neumeier)
Hamburg State Opera
by Horst Koegler
copyright 2011 by Horst Koegler
Originally billed a ´suburban legend´ when it was first performed in Budapest in 1909, Ferenc Molnar´s “Liliom” became a world hit when it was taken up by many theatres around the globe. In 1945 its stage version was adapted by Richard Rodgers and Oskar Hammerstein as a musical under the title “Carousel”, contiuing its success story in various stage and film versions. As a ballet it materialized when Christopher Wheeldon choreographed it as “Carousel (A Dance)” for a New York City Ballet gala in 20002, scoring an instant hit which was taken into the company´s regular repertory, with stellar performances by Alexandra Ansanelli and Benjamin Millepied.
Neumeier, now in his 38th year of running the Hamburg Ballet, apart from being its artistic director and chief choreographer, has already successfully staged various musicals or musical inspired ballets like “Shall We Dance” (Gershwin), “On the Town” and “West Side Story” (Bernstein). For “Liliom” he is listed as being resposible for the script, the production, the choreography, the costumes and the lights - more than enough for one man, it seems. Too much for one man?
He has shifted the plot to an American fair-ground during the depressing thirties, opening the prologue with the Balloon Man crossing the stage in slow-motion stalking steps as a sort of messenger between Heaven and Earth. In the programme we read ´After sixteen years in purgatory, Liliom is allowed to briefly return to earth to perform a good deed. He brings a star, stolen from heaven, for his son Louis, who does not recognize his father and refuses the gift. Angry and frustrated Liliom strikes his son. Louis´ mother Julie appears. Like her son, she perceives Liliom´s blow as a caress. Julie remembers Liliom, who once was a barker for a carousel in Playland´.
If this reads plausibly, it is not at all clear when the curtain opens that Liliom has rotted for sixteen years in hell and is now allowed on condition to return to earth where he does meet a strangely behaving boy, who we do not know that is supposed to be his son. Thus the things happening appear rather enigmatic and it is only in the very last moments of the seventh and final scene that a repeat of the introduction clarifies what it was supposed to explain: a hold up of the proper story, which, if the work had been produced for Broadway, would have been cut by a play-doctor during its pre-runs, in, say, Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The Hamburg performance runs for 165 minutes (including a 30 minutes interval), making one wish it had been cut by about three quarters of an hour.
It emerged as a giant dancical in the tradition of the American blockbusters, dreamt up by Cecil B. DeMille, Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli via the Broadway musicals of Balanchine, Robbins and Bob Fosse. It had a specially commissioned score by the Oscar awarded Michel Legrand for two orchestras, the Hamburg Philharmonic in the pit and the North German Radio Big Band on a platform high above the stage, with accordeon and gitarre as soloists, conducted by Simon Hewett and producing blazing waves of sound in the wake of Rachmaninov by way of Korngold, Gershwin and Ravel, garnished with the syncopations of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, sweetened by some melodic lollipops from the John Adams and Philip Glass confectioneries of haunting earworms. The stage, set by Ferdinand Wögerbauer, presents a delapidated American PLAYLAND fair-ground of the depression era, with a lone merry-go-round in the foggy background, with neon lights and a starry sky, every now and then sprinkled by coloured balloons.
In general Neumeier follows the Molnar plot with some additions of his own. And thus we are confronted with the protagonist, who is a carousel barker; Julie, a waitress, who falls in love with Liliom; Mrs. Muskat, owner of the carousel at which Liliom works and infatuated with him; Ficsur, a criminal and complice of Liliom; Marie, Julie´s best friend, with Rolf, as her fiancé, who from a porter graduates into a wealthy hotel-owner; and Julie´s son Louis (in Molnar´s play she is Liliom and Julie´s daughter Louise). They are supplemented by an advocate from heaven plus some messengers from a above as well as by a circus troupe with a clown, jugglers, dancers, acrobats and odaliscs, and a multitude of Playland visitors, policemen, workers and six devils who appear from nowhere, but probably represent the purgatrio where Liliom is rosted for 16 years before being allowed a step-visit back on earth.
It´s a giant crowd, which Neumeier handles with professional skill, profiling their characters in sharply drawn sketches and richly choreographed dances. I had some qualms, though, when I first heard of his plan, for Liliom as the protagonist is a tough, cocky guy and libertinous macho of monumental build – a role which was performed on Broadway and on screen by actors like John Barrymore, Joseph Schildkraut, Orson Welles, Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith. Which makes one ask, where is the dancer to live up to such outsize blokes? There exists none, I can think of – the last type of this kind I do remember was Vakhtang Chabukiani, the charismatic Ukranian Khan Gisei with Ulanova as the Polish princess Maria in “Fountain of Bakhchisarai” during the fifties.
Even with its fabulous roster of virile males, the Hamburg Ballet has no equivalent hero. But Neumeier has had the clever idea of confronting Liliom with a Julie of comparable strength and power, though of a completely contrasting nature – namely as a model of female grace and tenderness plus an almost Madonna-like radicance. Thus the two Hamburg dancers add up to a dream-couple, which mirror each other, though from extremely opposite poles, meeting in the middle, where the heart is situated. With their love for each other of superhuman force, which he cannot control and therefore mishandles her, while she answers his blows and strangulations with an infinite caress and affection, so that the ballet-legend could have well been titled “Liliom and Lilia”, transforming them into star-crossed lovers like “Romeo and Juliet”.
And so we have in Hamburg Carsten Jung as Liliom – a brute of a man as Stanley Kowalski in Neumeier´s “Streetcar Named Desire”, but here now with an infinetly expanded colour of character-traits, with a body, trained in a fitness-studio in addition to his brillantly polished technique as a dancer – and as a guest fron the Royal Ballet, Alina Cojocaru – known already as a meltingly beautiful Marguerite Gautier in Neumeier´s “Lady of the Camellias” – as a Julie of heartbreaking gentleness and indulgence, and a ballerina of haunting puriy. And while he excelled in his electrifying jumps and dazzling turns, with every muscle of his body contributing like a solo-instrument to the concert of his proud naked torso, her infectious love galvanized every single movement of her beautifully sculpted limbs, which she executed like performing a gesture of blessing. In their extended pas de deux time and space seemed suspended and when she mourns his dead body (he stabs himself when gets aware of being unable to sustain a family) it becomes a ritual of grief-stricken mourning, when even a hard-boiled brute has difficulty to hold back his tears,
However, there are other performances of sparkling genuity. As Madame Muskat Anna Polikarpova presents a weathered hard-boiled businesswoman who is not beyond attacks of infuriated jealousy (she fires Liliom when she becomes aware of his dallyings with Julie), while Lloyd Riggins is a criminal guy who does not stop for murder (he persuades Liliom to commit a holdup, from which he escapes, while Liliom gets arrested). There is the rather innocent girl-friend Marie and her fiance Wolf of Leslie Heylmann and Konstantin Tselikov, a rather naïve couple who turn later into rather snobbish rich people, and there is Aleix Martinez as the son of Julie and Liliom, a good for nothing of hardly to be tamed violent tempers, who promises to develop into as aggressive a bloke like his father.
And there is the marvellous Hamburg corps, dancing with enormous zest and lust. And Neumeier has choreographed richly patterned numbers for them, both in small ensembles (like Julie´s girl-friends) and in avalanching mass-formations (like the unemployed poors competing each other at the job center). The whole production communicates an atmophere of bitter-sweet gloom, exorcised by the oscillating major-minor sounds of Legrand´s haunting score.
All in all then: Neumeier´s “Liliom” is a spectacular show of Baz Luhrmann dimensions, even if it needs some cutting. It´s a gift for the Hamburg tourist managers, offering them a new catchy advertizing slogan: A Must See for Theaterfreaks!
All photos by Holger Badekow. From top:
Alina Cojocaru, Aleix Martinez, Sasha Riva, Carsten Jung.
Sasha Riva, Lloyd Riggins, ensemble.
Carsten Jung, Alina Cojacaru.
Carsten Jung, Anna Polikarpova.