Pascal Dusapin - Penthesilea
La Monnaie-De Munt, 2015
Franck Ollu, Pierre Audi, Natascha Petrinsky, Marisol Montalvo, Georg Nigl, Werner Van Mechelen, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Wiard Witholt, Yaroslava Kozina, Marta Beretta
La Monnaie Web Streaming - April 2015
The story of the Amazonian Queen Penthesilea, who launches her troops into the middle of the epic battle ensuing between Greece and Troy, is one of the stranger and lesser known of characters in Greek mythology. It was the German poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist who elaborated on the myth and the particular nature of her love of war and her love for Achilles in a High Romantic manner in 1808, and his version has been the inspiration for a number of operas in the modern age. Like the other composers who have approached the subject Pascal Dusapin's version, newly commissioned by La Monnaie in Brussels and premiered in March/April 2015, finds the dark contradictory sentiments fertile ground for musical exploration.
Long before Richard Wagner's Late Romantic exploration of the Liebestod theme in Tristan und Isolde, and three years before the author shot himself in a double suicide with Henriette Vogel, Heinrich von Kleist explored the same complex Romantic notions conflating love and death in 'Penthesilea'. Here the epic battle between two great warriors, Achilles and the Amazon Queen Penthesilea, is taken to such extremes and all the fears of defeat, capture and hatred become so overpowering that they transform into an almost erotic desire for submission that can only be satisfied in a carnal lust for death. It's the struggle between male and female desires on an epic scale of life and death.
The problem with this is that, quite apart from the warnings of their respective captains - Ulysses on the side of Achilles, Prothoe on the part of Penthsilea - and their duty as leaders over their troops, the desire to be torn apart by the arms of their beloved goes against not only the natural order of things, but it's also complicated by the laws governing their behaviour in war. As somewhat unwelcome forces in the bigger battle between Greece and Troy, not on either side (Kleist introducing a Rose Festival as the rationale for their involvement, where the Amazons capture great warriors to use in the procreation of their race) a love-struck Penthesilea has rescued the supreme figure of Achilles in battle but has then in turn been captured by the Greek warrior.
Since this would mean disgrace to Penthesilea, and since Achilles's feelings for the Amazon are no less overwhelming, the Greek warrior allows Penthesilea to think that she has actually captured him, so that they can be together. When Penthesilea finds out the truth however, she is appalled at the situation she finds herself in, and is helped escape by her warriors. Unable to give her up, Achilles has no option but to challenge her to a duel, to which he turns up unarmed and allows himself (in a reversal of the original myth) to be killed by the Amazon Queen. In a bloodlust of fury and hatred mixed with love, Penthesilea even launches herself at Achilles, tearing him apart with her teeth and devouring him along with her hounds.
Heinrich von Kleist's treatment of the Penthesilea myth is a powerful and disturbing one, and clearly tied up in his own complex Romantic notions of the purity of love in death. It's the kind of subject that calls out for a similar High Romantic treatment in an opera, but all the modern versions of the subject that I am familiar with tend to find a more modern musical language essential to the expression of the darkness of the mood and the nature of the subject. By the time Othmar Schoeck came to compose his 1927 one-act opera Penthesilea, he had already moved away from the lush post-Wagnerian symphonic scores towards the more suitably darker expression of Strauss' Elektra. René Koering's faithful setting of Kleist's text in his haunting 2008 opera Scènes de Chasse contrasts the contradictory sentiments with sung German dissonance in the conflict and a more lyrical flow to the spiritual evocations in Penthesilea's softly murmured French dialogue passages.
Dusapin's Penthesilea is very much in the same place as Schoeck and Koering, a dark and menacing place where emotions are laid bare and filled with violent intent. It even comes with an introductory preface note quoting Christa Wolf's warning that it's the beginning of the modern age, and it's not pretty ("Ce n’est pas un beau spectacle, l’ère moderne commence"). Dusapin is not particularly concerned with narrative drive and direction, nor - even though the libretto is in German - in working directly with Kleist's text, but rather it explores the extreme emotional states within the drama. The music is accordingly haunting, slow and steady, holding long sustained notes with occasional flurries and percussive blasts. The singing is impassioned but rarely strained to wild abandon, supported and lifted rather by the music to a level that indicates the nature of the underlying sentiments, and how disturbing they are to mental stability of the singer. Which is usually Penthesilea, putting one in mind of Elektra.
It's difficult then to find any narrative progression through the work. In line with Kleist's lyric drama, the main action and the battles take place off stage, observed and commented on by the principals. The real battle however is very much a matching of wits between two forces greater than any army, a battle of personalities and two huge personalities at that. What ought to be a romantic interlude in the middle of the Trojan war should perhaps not distract such great warriors from their duty, but consume them it does. Dusapin's Penthesilea explores an intermediate state between two vast forces, striving to find a common denominator between innumerable indeterminate and contradictory impulses; between love and the desire to destroy, the will to dominate and conquer conflicting with the temptation to surrender and find peace. How does one separate the warrior impulse from the human desire to love, acknowledging the inevitability of death at the end of it all? Where does real triumph lie and true fulfilment?
Pierre Audi's stage direction seeks to find a place for these abstract concepts on the stage at La Monnaie. The stage is dark, the landscape one of dust, rocks, shields and armour - solid, bleak and elemental. Combined with Dusapin's score, the mood is heavy and oppressive, with occasional abstract projections offering another dimension above the physical representation. The love of Penthesilea and Achilles however finds no spiritual uplift here, or at most only a brief moment or two of abandonment to those passions. Most of the time their passions torment the two lovers and it comes out in the tortured singing as they attempt express the impossibility of their situation, control, direct and vent the terrible impulses that this gives rise to. It's hugely challenging for the singers not only to push to those limits, but identify with the dark place those sentiments come from, but Natascha Petrinsky is utterly convincing - and terrifying - as Penthesilea, with Georg Nigl a most steadfast and determined Achilles, and Marisol Montalvo the distraught Prothoe.
Pascal Dusapin's Penthesilea is currently available to view for free via La Monnaie's web-streaming service. The next opera to be streamed is Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus (reviewed here at Opera Australia), and conducted by Carlo Rizzi. It can be viewed for one month from from 29 May.
Links: La Monnaie streaming, RTBF Musiq 3