A teenager in a green hoodie skateboards onto the stage, where a structure made of old-world furniture, piled high, creates a towering backdrop. He produces a violin and plays a familiar tune. A wardrobe door swings open and out pours the populace of a Russian shtetl, circa 1905. This is the startling opening of Fiddler on the Roof (retitled Anatevka, as per German tradition), staged by Barrie Kosky for the Komische Oper Berlin.
Kosky’s production—which premiered during the Komische Oper’s 70th-anniversary season, in 2017, and comes back into repertory tonight—was timely, given the issues of diaspora and immigration confronting Germany, along with its recent struggles with resurgent anti-Semitism. One critic thought that the set, by Rufus Didwiszus and Jan Freese, resembled a storehouse of Jewish possessions confiscated by the Nazis. Others were shaken by the first-act finale, in which thugs befoul a wedding celebration with overturned milk churns. The final breakup of Anatevka, the musical’s fictional Ukrainian village, occurs in a bleak, empty winter landscape.
None of this is surprising: Kosky’s productions consistently re-frame classic works in terms of today. He was the first Jewish director at the Bayreuth Festival, and his take on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg openly confronted Wagner’s anti-Semitism by inserting the composer and Hermann Levi, his Jewish conductor, into the action.
Other pieces are defined by a certain stylistic swagger. Kosky’s greatest, most globe-trotting hit is a Magic Flute that pins the singers against a projection screen filled with Expressionist imagery, the whole thing looking as if it tumbled out of Dr. Caligari’s cabinet. His vision of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, according to The New York Times, includes “bare-bottomed dancers in leather harnesses, a dildo-swinging Mephisto and nuns dressed as blood-spattered Jesus figures, with beards and crowns of thorns.”
One suspects that for the Australian Kosky, a descendant of Jewish immigrants from Europe, Fiddler on the Roof is a highly personal project. He calls the lead role of Tevye “the Hamlet or King Lear of music-theater performance.” He’s not just name-dropping. Philip Roth may have dismissed the work as “shtetl kitsch,” but beneath the exuberance of Jerry Bock’s music and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics, tragedy lurks—and a hint of terrors to come. —David Barbour
Anatevka premieres at the Komische Oper Berlin on November 6