The current building of the Baden State Theater in Karlsruhe was completed in 1975. It replaced an older theater that had been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. Today the theater presents a very full program of opera, ballet, concerts and spoken drama, performed mainly by their own ensembles and orchestra.
I have so far seen two opera performances here. The first was the stunning bel canto opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), which I later saw in very different productions in Krefeld and Berlin. The story takes place in ancient Gaul under the Roman occupation. Norma is the head priestess of the Gauls, but she is secretly in love with the Roman governor and has even borne him two children. (We are asked to believe that nobody in the small Gallic village has noticed this.) Although the plot has often been criticized, the music seldom fails to impress, provided of course that the theater has a soprano who can sing it properly. In Karlsruhe the soprano was Gabriella Morigi, who seventeen years later is still touring Europe to sing Norma and other roles of the high-dramatic repertoire.
In 2004 I went to Karlsruhe again to see their new production of the opera Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (1842-1918). This is an opera that is rarely performed in Germany, but it happened that both Frankfurt and Karlsruhe mounted new productions of it in 2003/2004, and it was interesting to see them both within a few days of each other.
Boito is best known as the librettist (text writer) of Giuseppe Verdi’s last two operas, Otello and Falstaff. During the 1880s and early 1890s, Boito deliberately put his own career as a composer on hold to write these texts and persuade the over-seventy-year-old Verdi to come out of retirement just two more times to compose these magnificent operas.
Boito wrote both the words and the music to Mefistofele, which is based on parts of Goethe’s Faust. It’s a huge opera, and the only one he ever really finished as a composer. Some musicians have their reservations about it, but as a naïve audience member I consider it Grand Opera and well worth a trip to Karlsruhe or Frankfurt or wherever it might be playing.
Also in 2004, I took a backstage theater tour of the Baden State Theater during their annual Open House. They started a new tour group every ten minutes or so, and said right at the start that they would follow the yellow arrows posted throughout the building, so anyone who wanted to stay longer at a particular place could just stay there and join the next group that came through.
The tour guides were people from all departments of the theater, including a stage inspector, a man from the lighting department and a veteran of the spoken drama section — people who knew the building and the organization extremely well.
The first stop was the stage in the large hall, where they were starting to put up the set for that evening’s performance. But they took the time to give us a ride on the revolving stage and explain that this theater actually has three revolving stages, a round one surrounded by two more in the form of concentric circles. The curved bookcases for Mefistofele came on one of the outer rings, so they could be rotated in or out of sight for quick scene changes without interrupting the flow of the music.
They also showed us the control board used by the stage manager (Inspizent) to call the singers, give instructions to the stage hands and make sure everything happened at the right time.
And we saw the various workshops where the sets and costumes are made, and the large room where the backdrops are painted.
Talking with the craftsmen who make the props and stage sets
My photos in this post are from 2004 and 2006. I revised the text in 2017.