Sale, Zurich Opera House

This is a closing down sale with a difference. Family members gather in the basement of a once-great department store. Its glory days were long ago. All that remains are a few shabby shelves of household appliances, bargain bins of socks and knickers, and some bolts of the store’s trademark brown-and-grey fabric. It is a time of loss, grief and regret, but also of conflict and anger.

What better music to express such emotions than that of Handel? Sale, Zurich Opera’s latest world premiere, describes itself as “a project by Christoph Marthaler, Anna Viebrock, Laurence Cummings and Malte Ubenauf, with music by Georg Friedrich Händel”. And incoming intendant Andreas Homoki makes an important statement by inviting Marthaler, the Swiss stage director whose opera productions have made waves in Salzburg, Paris, Berlin and Bayreuth, to the Zurich opera for the first time.

Sale is full of classic Marthaler moments. Cast members form a funeral line and take turns in pouring a scoop of laundry powder on the floor behind the cash desk. The matriarch of the dynasty keeps her sherry bottle hidden nearby. In an outbreak of rage, her great-nephew flings five-packs of men’s socks round the shop. Graham F. Valentine intones chunks of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”. Anna Viebrock’s set is a masterpiece of post-capitalist melancholy. And the selection of arias, choruses, ensembles and instrumental interludes from Handel’s operas and oratorios contains a great deal of wonderful music.

The singing, most notably from Anne Sofie von Otter and Christophe Dumaux, but also from Malin Hartelius, Tora Augestad, and – surprisingly – conductor Laurence Cummings (who sings “Comfort Ye” from the podium), is universally excellent. Cummings has style and lets the phrases breathe; his orchestra plays well. For chorus numbers, the singers are joined by the actors, who can all hold a musical line.

And still Sale does not match Marthaler’s greatest moments. The characters never really unfold, the passions seem dulled, the teeth are missing. A real Handel opera might have worked better. Marthaler chose his own form instead, avoiding the problem of Handel’s recitatives; in fact, they might have driven the action forward.

In a sudden, Handelian happy ending the family is called to dinner. Plates and glasses are a direct reference to the opulent premiere parties of Homoki’s predecessor, Alexander Pereira. But Marthaler steers shy of direct attack. The Zurich opera would be a dangerous place for an all-out criticism of capitalism. A pity – it could have been fun.

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