After all of the headlines, the arguments over freedom of artistic expression, the fretting about violence and hand-wringing about intercultural (mis)understanding and respect, the now-world-famous revival of Mozart's Idomeneo went off at the Deutsche Oper Berlin with less audience unrest than greets almost any new opera production in Germany these days.
The opera house and the authorities were prepared for much worse: there were riot police on all four sides of the building, according to news reports; the audience had to pass through metal detectors and have their bags x-rayed, just as if they were boarding an airplane, while trained dogs sniffed the aisles for explosives and windows were lined with foil to protect against shattering. Curtain time was delayed by half an hour. The London Times called it "Fortress Mozart."
Law enforcement officers were outnumbered by members of the media, Reuters observed, and there were a few demonstrators — both Christians protesting the production's alleged blasphemy and liberals agitating in support of religious tolerance.
The critic for the Associated Press gave some more details about the scene — added to Mozart's original by German bad-boy director Hans Neuenfels — at the heart of all the uproar. At the close of the opera, King Idomeneo, who has been subject to the whims of the Greek god Poseidon throughout the story, "turns from victim to liberated humanist who simply stops believing and takes his fate into his own hands. That results first in the gods unmasked — stripped to their underwear in an allusion to the emperor with no clothes. Then they are beheaded by Idomeneo, who pulls their heads from a bloody sack before he himself expires as the final curtain falls."
The controversy arises from the fact that Neuenfels includes among these gods, alongside Poseidon (who actually does figure in the libretto), the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad. Most Muslim traditions forbid any artistic depiction of the Prophet, let alone one in which he is stripped to his skivvies and decapitated.
As this scene unfolded, according to the AP, one man booed and yelled, "Stop it!" and several other voices responded, "Continue, continue." The Washington Post reported a few cries of "Jawohl!" and "scattered jeering" as the opera concluded.
In the end, the performers were warmly applauded — and they well deserved their cordial reception, according to the AP's critic. Soprano Nicole Cabell, the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, "was the star of the evening ... lithe and evocative in voice, movement and facial expression." Tenor Ra‹l Gim_nez, he wrote, "was a memorable Idomeneo — never regal but always captivating, powerful and well-pitched and an endearing actor."
To judge from early reports, many of those in attendance were bemused by all the fuss. Danish tourist Benta Kjêªller told the AP that she had expected "something more controversial." Another audience member, 69-year-old Christe Gruenheid, said that she was "only here because of the music. The whole commotion leaves me cold."
That last observation seems to be true of director Neuenfels as well. He stayed away from the performance, having told the German magazine Der Spiegel that what the company "is turning my production into is s**t."