Bernhard Lang - Re:igen
SWR Festspiele Schwetzingen, 2014
Rolf Gupta, Georges Delnon, Almerija Delic, Cornel Frey, Clara Meloni, Alin Deleanu, Amélie Saadia, Kai-Uwe Fahnert, Lasse Penttinen
ARTE Concent, Live streaming - 25 April 2014
Written in 1900, Arthur Schnitzler's play 'La Ronde' or 'Reigen' caused something of a scandal when it was first published. Using its circular structure, the play connects men and women of various social classes through ten sexual encounters that work their way like a relay back to the same prostitute who is seen in the first encounter. The play has a lot to say about the nature of class and society in turn-of-the-century Vienna, but it's also revealing about the attitudes and the relationships between men and women.
It's the fact that the encounters between them are sexual in nature that is significant here. Each of the scenes are brief, fleeting, lustful and exploitative on the part of at least one of the parties (usually the men), but each of the participants is looking for something, whether it's an escape from their regular partner or illicitly seeking love, attention and reassurance in the arms of another. The encounters are also each divided into a before and an after the act (which is not described), where instead of finding what they are looking for, there's a measure of dissatisfaction, shame and disappointment.
La Ronde doesn't seem to have the kind of structure that makes it suitable for adaptation to a traditional narrative format, but it has been successfully made into film (most notably by Max Ophuls in 1950), and has been the subject of at least one other opera that I'm aware of, Philippe Boesman's Reigen. Bernhard Lang's Re:igen, composed for the Schwetzingen Festival in 2012 and revived here in 2014, uses instrumentation and a "transformative iteration" technique of repetition that is very different from Boesman's more serial method. It's a technique that seems better suited to the cyclical and repeated structure of 'La Ronde', allowing it to have a consistency and a flow, with subtle variations of expression.
Lang's Re:igen retains the all-important structure of the original work and the social class/profession of its characters, the opera divided in to ten short sections (1. the prostitute and the policeman, 2. the policeman and the parlour maid, 3. the parlour maid and the young gentleman, 4. the young gentleman and the married woman, 5. the married woman and the husband, 6. the husband and the schoolgirl, 7. the schoolgirl and the author, 8. the author and the actress, 9. the actress and the rich man, 10. the rich man and the prostitute). It's worth noting that it's a married couple, the only legitimate encounter, that lies at the very centre of this circle of deception and disappointment.
What is evidently significant about the encounters is that they are somewhat ill-matched, the connections briefly made only to be just as quickly broken. Lang's score works to the rhythms of Michael Sturminger's libretto - the singing adhering also to regular speech patterns that rise to lyrical expression in moments of high emotion - but it has an instrumentation and language that allows it to describe situation and character. It's not an easy work to sing and act, and it's to the credit of the cast that they define these roles so well. The clash of types and personalities is evidently what is important and Lang finds a tone and a style for each character in each encounter (Eastern Turkish sounds for example suggest that the schoolgirl is of ethnic origin), all of them contained within an overarching and very distinctive sound world.
That sound world is far from conventional opera instrumentation and distinct even from what is more commonly heard in avant-garde or contemporary classical opera. The 23 musicians for the opera consist of members of the SWR Radio Symphonic Orchestra as well as SWR Big Band players. There's consequently a rhythmic pulse to score that is anchored with an electronic bass and a drum-beat, the rhythm having a definite jazz swing, or even a slightly sordid lounge quality of Kurt Weill-like decadence that suits the subject very well. There seems to be an effort to integrate the hopeful/lustful musical expression of each of the partnerships in the lead-up to sex into a common rhythm that inevitably breaks down into a resigned dissatisfaction in the 'after' section.
The staging also plays a significant part in retaining the sense of flow that is so much a part of the structure and purpose of the work. The dramatic action all takes place in what looks like the rear stalls of a rococo Baroque theatre, with chairs scattered around, TV screens and monitors, and even a descending chandelier. Despite the clutter on the stage Georges Delnon's direction allows situations to develop, change, flow and move on. Rolf Gupta conducts the orchestra from behind the stage, the musicians spread out around the boxes of the theatre's circle. A mattress is an important prop here and could be used to connect and make other implications of sharing and passing on, but there's a more realistic variety of positions adopted. Like the play however, the sexual act is elided.
Implications however are important in determining whether La Ronde has something more to tell us than just providing us with a snapshot of fin-de-siècle Vienna society. This production doesn't seem to have much to tell us about the divisions, deceptions and exploitation between class and position in our own society, nor does it seem to raise issues such as the transmission of STDs or AIDS. There are a few small tweaks in Lang and Sturminger's Re:igen - some doubling of roles that might suggest the interchangeability of partners, the "actress" moreover being a man in drag - but whether there is any intentional commentary made here is hard to determine. Whatever you read into it - and at the very least, it has much to say about what men and women expect from relationships - La Ronde remains a fascinating piece and Re:igen explores the depths and mysteries with wonderful fluidity.
Links: ARTE Concert