Friday 22 August 2014

Bach - Trauernacht (Aix-en-Provence, 2014 - Webcast)

Johann Sebastian Bach - Trauernacht

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2014 

Raphaël Pichon, Katie Mitchell, Frode Olsen, Aoife Miskelly, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Rupert Charlesworth, Andri Björn Robertsson

Medici, Culturebox - Live Streaming, July 2014

J.S Bach didn't actually write any operas, so it's rare indeed to find his work in the schedule of an opera festival. Bach's Passions have a dramatic line that has seen them adapted to the stage on occasion, but the work Trauernacht, presented at the 2014 Aix-en-Provence festival, is unlikely to mean anything to opera-goers. Trauernacht (subtitled 'The Angel's Hand', but literally meaning 'Night of Mourning') is actually a collection of a number of similarly themed religious Bach cantatas gathered together and developed into a kind of narrative line by conductor Raphaël Pichon and director Katie Mitchell.

Bach wrote over 200 cantatas while he was in the position of  Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, sacred pieces of varying length for solo performers and small choirs quoting lines from the Bible or religious meditations on scripture. If it's a case that, like Handel's religious oratorios, these exquisite little pieces can be given a new life through a stage performance, then there's merit in the exercise for that reason alone. Unlike Handel's oratorios however, it rather more difficult (and potentially controversial) to select and adapt these works to fit a dramatic narrative. There is however a very specific sentiment explored musically in the pieces chosen for Trauernacht, and there is even an inherent drama in how the music expresses the sentiments of the few lines of text and scripture in them.

As the title of the work tells us, that sentiment is associated with questions of death and mourning. Although death is a common enough occurrence in opera works, nowhere is it meditated on at such length (even though the work runs to less than 80 minutes) and with such sensitivity as it is here in Trauernacht. The exquisite beauty of the music and an abstract mediation on such matters would then more than justify the creation of such a work, but Mitchell also attempts to find a narrative path of sorts that takes a meaningful line from sorrow and incomprehension among a family over bereavement suffered by the death of a father, through to acceptance that this is the fate of us all.

In terms of staging, this doesn't require anything too elaborate. Vicki Mortimer's designs for the Katie Mitchell's Aix production (the two of them previously collaborated in the creation of George Benjamin's Written on Skin for Aix in 2012, Mitchell also involved with The House Taken Over by Vasco Mendonça en 2013) provide a table with four chairs, a dinner table where the family place the remaining belongings - a folded suit and a pair of shoes - of their recently buried or cremated father. A fifth figure sits recessed in the darkness in the background who evidently represents the father (Frode Olsen in the main providing a haunting low whistle between cantatas), but by the same token he can be seen as merely the presence of the father or even an angel. His main role is as a focus for the thoughts and meditations of the other four members of the family to work through their anger, grief and sorrow as they move around, sometimes in slow motion, and sit down later for a meal together.

To set the funereal mood for the piece, the opening prologue is not by actually by J.S. Bach, but a motet written by his cousin Johann Christoph Bach, "Mit Weinen hebt’s sich an". All the other compositions however come from J.S. Bach cantatas, often consisting of short recitative or a single repeated line as each of the family members - in solo air, in duet and sometimes in small choral arrangements - express their thoughts and process their grief. The tenor rages at the terrible fate that awaits them all in cantata BWV 90, "Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende", the four singers come together at the centre of the piece to sing of their submission to the Lord's will in an extract from cantata BWV 71 "Du wollest dem Feinde nicht geben" taken from Psalm 74 ("You would not give the soul of Your turtledove to the enemy"). The father himself comes forward to sing BWV 159 "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is finished"), bringing the family to acceptance in the bass air BWV 82 "Ich habe genug" ("I am content"), and in the choral BWV 668, "Vor deinen Thron" ("Before thy throne, O Lord, I present myself").

In terms of staging, the narrative developed by Katie Michell and Raphaël Pichon for Trauernacht is very simple, but it's entirely appropriate, respectful and meaningful. The directors successfully retain the religious origins and significance of these profound meditations on death, while at the same time giving them context and expression in everyday actions and places. That's as much in the singing and the performances, the words and the sentiments behind them not merely chanted or recited, but given full dramatic expression. There's a spiritual purity in these musical compositions, in the lilting tone of the recorder, oboe and viola da gamba that mournfully accompanies the singing, weaving through the voices, granting them an uplifting grace that carries them through to a beautiful resolution.

Links: Medici, CultureboxFestival d’Aix-en-Provence