Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Zimmermann - The White Rose

Udo Zimmermann - The White Rose

Angers Nantes Opéra, 2013

Nicholas Farine, Stephan Grögler, Elizabeth Bailey, Armando Noguera

Angers Grand Théâtre, 29 January 2013 - ARTE Live Web

There are some minimalist stage directors who like to reduce a set to a bare wall and chairs, but there are some operas where the setting is entirely appropriate and where there is no better way to highlight the impact of the work and what it is about.  Udo Zimmermann's The White Rose (Die Weiße Rose, 1967, revised 1986) is one such work.  Set in a prison cell in Munich on the 22nd February 1943, brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, aged 24 and 21, are only hours away from being executed by their Nazis captors.  Members of the White Rose group, responsible for publishing and distributing leaflets and painting slogans on walls denouncing Hitler and the Nazi's crimes, Hans and Sophie have spent three days in a cell, imprisoned but undefeated.  There's only one way to depict their circumstances - stark grey concrete walls, two chairs, a mound of dirt on the floor.

Some composers - most modern composers - also like to work with discordant sounds, crashing percussion and minimalist screeching of string instruments, but some subjects also can't be expressed in any other way.  The White Rose, a Chamber Opera in 16 scenes, is one of those works.  It's the hammering of the score that beats the two young students more brutally than any image of an officer in a Nazi uniform.  It's the plaintive squeal of a violin too that reflects the attempts to silence their defiance and their efforts to keep up their morale.  Aware of the fate that is in store for them, Hans and Sophie Scholl's words rise above the cacophony, the two of them striving to picture a world beyond the confines of their prison, trying to convince themselves that the world still exists outside, that it will endure and that nature will purify the horror that has been inflicted on it.

Only one hour long, The White Rose is an intense, harsh and powerful opera, but there are also some beautiful moments of reflective lyricism in the pure young voices ringing out in the dark, finding hope in their despair.  They have confidence and optimism that their cries have been heard, that the word will spread, that their defiance and dedication to the truth will be an inspiration.  Udo Zimmermann's music might not be the most melodic then, but it is highly expressive, with rhythmic pulses, waltz music and lone flutes and violins picking out the moods and the extreme conditions of the piece.  The musical director Nicholas Farine is a specialist in Baroque music, which might not seem the most suitable qualification for a modern opera work, but the requirements for expression of the chamber arrangements, the need for musical precision and the importance of timing probably aren't all that different.

If the music can be said to largely represent the violence enacted against the two imprisoned students - although as indicated there are a wider range of musical styles and some lyricism applied - the spiritual quality of the work is expressed primarily in the libretto and the singing.  As with Zimmermann's revision of the score, the original 1967 libretto by Ingo Zimmermann was revised in 1986 with a new libretto by Wolfgang Willaschek and it's the revised version of the opera that is played here.  The libretto is philosophical and poetic in its imagery, drawing from the same inspirational sources that informed the leaflets and slogans of the students' White Rose group - from the Bible, Novalis, Aristotle, Goethe, Lao tzu and the teachings of their university philosophy professor, Klaus Huber.  Those sentiments are expressed powerfully in the performances of the two singers who play Sophie and Hans, the young English soprano Elizabeth Bailey and Argentinean tenor, Armando Noguera.

This Angers Nantes Opéra production of The White Rose was performed at the Grand Théâtre Angers and broadcast live on the 29th January 2013 via internet streaming on the French/Geman television, ARTE.  Stephan Grögler's set and direction of the work, as indicated earlier, is relatively straightforward in its depiction of the harsh conditions of the prison setting.  The direction and the use of lighting however doesn't just reflect the harsh discordance of the music, but works with the libretto and the singing to fully express everything that is contained in this compact and powerful work.

Udo Zimmermann's The White Rose can be viewed for free via internet streaming from the ARTE Live Web site.  The opera is performed in German with French subtitles only.