Proserpin, Musikfestspiele Potsdam Sanssouci, Germany – review

Why can’t it be summer all the time? On a hot June night in the absurdly beautiful grounds of Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci palace, the question seems valid enough. Pluto had a mother-in-law problem; that was the way Greek and Roman mythology explained it. Proserpina brightened things up in the Underworld when he brought her there, but Ceres, her mother, was not amused. In the end they struck a time-share deal, which is why the rest of us have to live with four seasons a year.

In 18th-century Sweden, such hot summer nights must have seemed even more rare, even for royalty. King Gustav III warmed to the classical story enough to sketch an opera around it. The young Joseph Martin Kraus, weary of German politics, turned the monarch’s ideas into an opera that was also a job application. It worked. Proserpin was a hit, and Kraus, later hailed by Gluck and Haydn as a genius, became “the Swedish Mozart”.

Proserpin rounds off this year’s Musikfestspiele in Potsdam. The focus has been on Scandinavia, and Kraus’s opera could hardly be more Swedish – Kellgren’s libretto is in the vernacular, perhaps one of the reasons why this gem has remained largely neglected. Proserpin is a startling discovery. There are echoes of Mozart, and Gluck’s influence is evident, but the piece is giddily original, and astonishingly free in its form. Kraus uses the chorus as one of his main protagonists and slides from recitative to aria to duet, trio, ensemble and back again with blink-and-you-miss-it alacrity. His Gods are very human – passionate, vulnerable and flawed – which is half the point. Gods are allowed to behave badly in public.

This is the last opera to be staged in Frederick’s exquisite miniature New Palace opera house before it closes for a three-year roof refurbishment, and it uses the theatre for all it is worth. The cast and chorus play on the stage, on the apron, on the stairs of the auditorium, and leaning into the tiny orchestra pit. There, conductor Olof Boman and his Barokksolistene bring Kraus’s score to life with playing that is fleet, vivid and full of colour.

Herbert Murauer’s costumes have the Gods – who are enjoying life in Sicily – in white and the denizens of Hades in black, until, when the final compromise is struck, everyone switches to checker-board duality. Elisabeth Linton’s unambitious stage direction tells the story clearly enough, and the Swedish cast gives its best to Kraus’s imaginative score. The evening’s best singing comes from Ensemble Syd, the chorus; but it is Boman’s beautiful crafting of the whole that is this Proserpin’s greatest success.

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