Thursday, 20 November 2014

Glanert - Solaris (Oper Köln, 2014 - Cologne)

Detlev Glanert - Solaris

Oper Köln, 2014

Lothar Zagrosek, Patrick Kinmonth, Nikolay Borchev, Aoife Miskelly, Martin Koch, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, Qiulin Zhang, Dalia Schaechter, Hanna Herfurtner, Peter Bermes

Oper am Dom, Cologne - 14 November 2014

Science fiction is not a common genre for opera, but it's by no means unheard of. As far back as 1777, Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna used a fabricated trip to the moon as a way to explore more earth-bound desires and behaviours. The science-fiction concept simultaneously celebrates human ingenuity and the willingness of man to look beyond themselves in the quest for knowledge and betterment, but even in this early work it finds that mankind's ability to extend the knowledge frontier is somewhat limited by those very same human impulses and desires.

Stanislaw Lem's 1961 science-fiction novel 'Solaris' is a similar example of science-fiction using outer space to explore the human inner space. The strange phenomena experienced by the crew of a space station exploring the plasma ocean of the planet Solaris reveals much about what it means to be human and the limitations of what the human psyche can endure. For Lem however the question is primarily an intellectual one that doesn't use the subject as much to examine what it tells us about human desires, but rather it asks questions about the capacity of humanity to overcome those basic physical and psychological factors that would be necessary to make the leap to comprehend and meaningfully communicate with an alien intelligence.

It's a chaotic and confusing situation that Kris Kelvin discovers when he arrives on the Solaris space-station at the very start of the Detlev Glanert's opera. Expecting to find three remaining crew members, Kelvin gets less and more than he bargained for. One of the crew, Gibarian, has killed himself, leaving only the cyberneticist Snout and the astrobiologist Sartorius, but there are other strange figures on-board the station - a baboon, a dwarf and an old lady. It soon becomes clear that the three interlopers are closely related to the crew members, living beings created by the plasma ocean of the planet Solaris in an unintentionally terrible and tormenting attempt at communication. It isn't long before Kris encounters his own personal demon drawn from his memory by the planet Solaris - his wife Harey who killed herself 14 years ago.

There's a carefully delineated symmetry in the duality of the situation in Solaris, but it's difficult to entirely separate one strand from the other. Significantly, there are eight characters in the opera, four who are human and four who are not human. Gibarian is actually dead (although there's a strange attempt at reanimation made later here), but the apparition created by him - a baboon-like creature - still exists and haunts the station of its own accord. These are figures of self-torment for their human counterparts or perhaps, conjured up by the planet from their memories and associated psychology, they are just tormenting for the difficulty that the crew have in confronting these aspects of their personality. Snaut, for example, has to deal with a domineering mother who still treats him like a baby and changes his nappies. Sartorius' 'dwarf' meanwhile is rather more overly and disturbingly tied to psycho-sexual impulses.

For his part, psychologist Kris Kelvin considers that this replica of Harey as an abomination, and he tries to resist the attractive notion that she could offer him solace and forgiveness for some residual guilt that he may feel about the suicide of his wife. Kelvin's reaction - killing a succession of Hareys only for them to reappear the next day - might seem extreme, but in a way it reflects and expresses the difficulties that humans would face in any attempt to explore and extend knowledge beyond the limitations of their human experience. The pain of killing Harey and seeing her reborn again each day, and the pain experienced by 'Harey' in her confusion over his behaviour, gives some indication of how distressing and beyond normal human endurance this would stretch any individual. I'm not sure that Lem offers any solution to this dilemma in his novel, but in the opera it appears that one of Sartorius' experiments manages to break the connection for the sake of the sanity of the remaining crew, although there's an echo left in the mind of Kris Kelvin in the closing notes of the score.

Glanert's score for Solaris recognises the duality of the metaphysical dilemma and his writing manages to be both dramatic and lyrical, even if the balance (perhaps necessarily and thus proving Lem's point) tends to lean towards the exploration of human emotions. There is a recognition however that the lines are blurred somewhat by the extraordinary experiences that the characters have to endure, and this leads to some sharp contrasts. A striking example of this occurs when Kris Kelvin's dreaming of his dead wife leads to her coming to taking a physical form on the space station, the lyrical nature of the dream overlapping with the dramatic representation of her actual presence. It's the personification of Solaris itself however - the planet, the plasma sea - that is Glanert's most successful musical creation in the opera. A chorus takes up the voice of the planet, chanting and reversing syllables, creating an otherworldly, warm presence, but one that is also dangerously alluring.

The physical evocation of the world and the planet has an important role to play in setting the right tone. In contrast to the high-tech 2012 Bregenz world premiere production, Darko Petrovic's set suggests a greater sense of mental disintegration in the crumbling concrete structure of the space station. The semi-circular curve of the station rests on a body of water, a few inches deep, that also suggests a lack of solidity. It's also of course representative of the fluid nature of the planet itself, and has an effective eeriness when the chorus swish onto the stage. Just as effective are the use of panels of stars and control panels that that sweep through the station, depositing and vanishing figures from the scene. You never quite know what to expect when one of them slides across the stage. Patrick Kinmonth's direction extended to the choreography which also had a significant role to play in the creation of mood and playing out of the drama.

Lothar Zagrosek's conducting of the Oper Köln orchestra was sympathetic to the moods and rhythms of the score, as well as being considerate of the singing voices, which were mostly all on the high side of their voice type register. Nikolay Borchev's soft baritone suited Kelvin's character and nature (a little more emotionally animated than the impassive Donatas Banionis in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1971 film version of Solaris). Harey's high intense and expressive notes were delivered with crystal clarity by Aoife Miskelly, but with warmth and a sense of feeling for her character's pain. Martin Koch's bright tenor brought out the emotional instability of Snaut, while Sartorious's scientific rigour was characterised in the wonderfully projected bass of Bjarni Thor Kristinsson.

Links: Oper Köln