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Pianist Orlov in »Barocco«: Handcuffed at the piano

Photo: Fabian Hammerl

Is self-immolation the ultimate act of rebellion? Film images of people setting themselves on fire can be seen again and again on the stage of Hamburg's Thalia Theater on this Thursday evening. To beautiful music, including works by George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi, dancers hurl burning cloths through the air, flames are lit on a table, an actor is allowed to symbolically burn down a dollhouse.

A narrator's voice commemorates 20-year-old Jan Palach, who set himself on fire on Prague's Wenceslas Square in January 1969 in protest against the suppression of freedom and the invasion of his country by the Warsaw Pact states. One actress utters the slogan: "We are all the last generation."

It is a thrilling, dark, but also a bit crazy evening that the Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov is organizing in Hamburg. Serebrennikow, 53, is »Artist in Residence« at the Thalia Theater and talks about today's climate glue, the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague at that time and also about the Paris uprising of 1968.

It shows the pianist Daniil Orlov, on whose right wrist a man in a police uniform has attached a handcuff, while Orlov plays a very pretty piano piece with his left hand. In one scene, the assassination attempt of the alleged feminist Valerie Solanas on Andy Warhol in New York in June 1968 is re-enacted – with six actors in Warhol wigs falling to the ground in sync when the shots are fired.

The director calls the show a "musical manifesto"

Serebrennikov is probably the best-known Russian artist in exile in Germany. Last year, after many reenactments by the powerful in Russia and temporary house arrest, he moved to Berlin. When he last staged in Hamburg a few months ago, there was still protest against the work of a Russian artist at the premiere, Ukrainian activists demonstrated in front of the theater. This time it remains quiet in front of the house. The demonstration will take place in the hall at the end of the show.

After almost two and a half hours, almost all spectators in the stalls and in the stands stand up and applaud for minutes. Splendidly entertained, overwhelmed and often overwhelmed by an evening of music and theatre, about which the programme booklet says: "We dedicate the performance to all persecuted artists, in Russia and all over the world."

The director calls the spectacle »Barocco« a »musical manifesto«. He published a first version in Russia in 2018. On the one hand, the title alludes to the selection of music and vocal pieces and, on the other hand, to the original meaning of the word "barocco", which probably meant an irregularly shaped, imperfect pearl. It's about the struggle to be unique. This is the fight against a system of oppression as I have experienced it," Serebrennikov is quoted as saying in a theatre text. He describes the evening as a "total work of art".

Famous cinema pictures are shamelessly stolen

Serebrennikov has countertenor Odin Biron heartbreakingly sing the "Cold Song" from Henry Purcell's "King Arthur", which many pop fans also know. Soprano Nadesda Pavlova appears in a gold costume as an unearthly diva. Shamelessly famous images from film classics are stolen and reinvented on stage to the music of a band and a string quintet. You can see a plastic bag dancing in the wind of two fans, much like in the 1999 film "American Beauty" by Sam Mendes. A video apparently created by artificial intelligence alienates the explosion scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni's »Zabriskie Point« from 1970.

As if the pomp of the video images were sometimes too much for him, Serebrennikov presents the Brazilian street singer Jovey, whom he discovered in Berlin, several times in between. "People from Ukraine are fleeing the war," says the 24-year-old musician. "People from Russia are fleeing arbitrariness."

It is a colorful, sometimes pathetic, also confused jumble of slogans and statements, clown interludes and great singing performances, which can be admired in the Thalia Theater. An evocation of death, pain and beauty, which is obviously meant to be understood as a call to resistance. Of course, you can find the fire symbolism, which makes it constantly sizzle and flicker somewhere in this performance, a bit intrusive. But you can also put it more kindly: Here a director seems to be really burning for his understanding of sincere attitude and art.