Sunday, 7 December 2014

Glass - Spuren der Verirrten - The Lost (Linz, 2013 - DVD)

Philip Glass - Spuren der Verirrten - The Lost

Landestheater Linz, 2013

Dennis Russell Davis, David Pountney, Bram de Beul, Sophy Ribrault, Jacques le Roux, Karen Robertson, Gotho Griesmeier, Martin Achrainer, Martha Hirshcmann, Matthaus Schmidlechner, Dominik Nekel, Elisabeth Bruer

Orange Mountain Music - DVD

The commission of a new opera by Philip Glass to open the new Landestheater at Linz in 2013 was a bold statement of intent. There would certainly have been a lot of expectation placed in the production and undoubtedly many different views about how to best achieve those aims (the Making of feature on this DVD recording of the World Premiere gives just a small indication of the challenges faced in the nerve-racking final days up to the premiere). It's doubtful however that the sprawling and largely incomprehensible Spuren der Verirrten would have been what anyone had in mind, but it has to be said that the work fulfils its remit perfectly and often impressively.

As you're dealing with a Peter Handke script as the origin for the libretto of Spuren der Verirrten (literally 'Footprints of the Lost'), I guess the question 'what is it about?' doesn't really apply. Or perhaps you don't need to look far beyond the title itself to grasp the essential theme of the work. It is indeed about the lost, and the opera takes a kaleidoscopic and somewhat abstract view of where we are as a society today, a lost society that has indeed just blindly followed in the footsteps of those lost before us. Act I broadly deals with a view of the here and now in an Austrian context (weather, borders and war are recurring motifs), with traditional dress worn and even a zither and Alpine horns played on-stage and included in the musical score. Act II draws in 'lost' figures from the Bible and mythology (Moses, Salome, Medea, Oedipus), while Act III attempts to resolve or at least come to an accommodation with the nature of being lost and just getting on with it.

On a more abstract or meta-conceptual level - and one that takes into account the creation of the opera itself as a commission to open a new theatre - you could also consider the theme of the Lost to be reflected in a group of abstract characters (they're only named A, B, C, D etc.) in search of a narrative. "We remain you and me, and me and you" says one lover to another in one of the sections and that is essentially it. That much we can say, but what else is true in the larger picture of where we fit into the world? Lost characters in search of a narrative does indeed reflect the question of art to find a broader sense of underlying meaning and context. "Who today is even worthy of a fate?" questions another character, "Time has become hollow and it has become impossible to play on the world stage" says another. By the end of the opera - one instigated by 'a member of the audience' taking to the stage - the chorus are in the orchestra pit and the orchestra are on the stage. Everyone is lost and we don't know what's going on, but look, isn't it still wonderful?, Spuren Der Verirrten seems to say.

Well yes actually, it is. While this kind of narrative can prove puzzling to an audience, it's perfect for the abstraction of music, and perfect for how Philip Glass traditionally approaches such material. Spuren der Verirrten is really no more abstract a piece than Einstein on the Beach, Glass unconstrained by narrative demands and writing music purely for the beauty of the theatrical experience alone. As such he's at his most lyrical, rhythmic and melodic here. It's almost like a 'Best of Philip Glass', with the flow of Einstein, the choral surges of Satyagraha, the swirling musical melodies of his Dance pieces and the pulsing narrative drive of Powaqqatsi (more so than Koyaanisqatsi). There's also something of The Voyage in the approach to a similar concept, and even some of the film soundtrack Glass of 'The Hours'. It's certainly a much more musically rich piece than the recent The Perfect American, but by the same token, it's not exactly anything new from this composer either.

The reason for the richness of melody and tempo is clearly a response to the variety of Spuren der Verirrten as a theatrical piece that incorporates a variety of short scenes, with occasional solo singing by characters who weave through the work, but more often as couples, and more often still in pure choral arrangements. It's dance however that is the dominant driving force of the work, both dramatically and musically. Connecting all these modes of expression and applying a narrative is partly down to the individual in the audience, but it's also a challenge for the director David Pountney to give a visual representation to abstract fragments of text, keep it flowing and make it all fit under one roof. The artistic, logistical and technical challenges are evident (and alluded to in the Making of feature on the DVD), but even though it inevitably looks a little cluttered in places, it does all come together remarkably well.

So, what's the point of it all?, you still might well ask. Well, getting back to the basics, the point is to put on a work at the Landestheater Linz that stands as a statement of intent, a commitment to the artform that puts everyone (not least the new theatre) through its paces and tests them to their limits. There is however a message of sorts at the conclusion of The Lost. "Being lost brings out the best in a person" and "leads to a fundamentally new beginning they say". It's not an entirely convincing message, but in the context of the subject, it knows that there's no room for certainty. Philip Glass gives this expression the perfect accompaniment and provides Linz with a suitably grand, epic and ambitious work to open their new theatre.  It might not be great, but it's an impressive achievement nonetheless.

There is no High Definition Blu-ray release of Spuren Der Verirrten, but the dual-layer DVD is a perfectly good recording of the world premiere performance on 12th April 2013. The image quality is good, widescreen enhanced, and the audio track is Dolby Digital 5.0. The sound isn't studio quality perfect, and there is a fair amount of on-stage noise, but the recording, mixing and overall tone of the orchestral performance is fairly good.  The 'Making of' feature runs to 40 mins, with bilingual English and German subtitles. Subtitles are in English and German only.