Aribert Reimann - Lear
Staatsoper Hamburg, 2014
Simone Young, Karoline Gruber, Bo Skovhus, Katja Pieweck, Hellen Kwon, Siobhan Stagg, Erwin Leder, Lauri Vasar, Andrew Watts, Martin Homrich, Christian Miedl, Peter Gallard, Jürgen Sacher, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Frieder Stricker
Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray
Shakespeare has been adapted to opera many times, sometimes even successfully, but rarely with fidelity to the richness of the text and the wealth of themes. To do Shakespeare justice, you need a robust musical language that can not only support and fill in the gaps that are inevitable in the transfer of a work from one artistic medium to another, but bring something new out of it. The occasions when Shakespeare is done well in opera are rare, rarer still (to the point of nonexistence) are works that can be said to improve on Shakespeare, but there are moments, Verdi coming closest in the dark thunder of Macbeth, in the dramatic concision and focus of Otello, and in the lightness of the comic touch and sensitive characterisation of Falstaff. 'King Lear' was Verdi's cherished project that he occasionally sketched and started to work on, but which eventually ended up eluding him.
Aside from Macbeth, 'King Lear' is one Shakespeare work that doesn't really need any darkening of the themes or emphasis on the madness, but this is exactly what Aribert Reimann's 1978 opera Lear does. It doesn't so much strive to faithfully represent the dramatic progression of Shakespeare's original or attempt to build on its themes and apply them to another context (although it does do both to a certain extent), as much find a musical equivalent for the drama and condense it down into abstract musical structures and intense vocal expression. The result, when filtered through Aribert Reimann's own experience and musical language, is close to terrifying. Which is really just the impression you ought to get from 'King Lear'.
The impression is one thing - and there's little doubt that Reimann's atonal noise can make a huge nerve-shattering and ear-splitting cacophony - but Lear also must engage the audience with its characters, its language and its drama. Claus H. Hennenberg's adaptation of the German translation holds close to the original (if the English language approximations are anything to go by), to the essence of it at least, but certainly in terms of fitting the language and expression to the characters. Inevitably, it's much condensed, but without losing any of the import of the original. It's not so successful if you judge the pacing of scenes and the passage of time to be critical, as they might be more on the theatre stage. What it loses in that respect however, it unquestionably gains from concision, intensity and from the musical expression.
King Lear in any case is fairly intense in the original, wasting little time in scene-setting, getting straight to the nature and heart of nearly all its characters in its opening scene where "majesty falls to folly". Reimann's Lear is exactly the same. The first thing you notice that is going to be characteristic of Reimann's treatment - aside from the difficult discordant music - is the layering in the first scene, with several characters simultaneously expressing their misgivings about the king's actions. That technique is nothing new in opera, but applying it to the density of Shakespeare's characterisation is a challenge. Reimann daringly and successfully layers those contrasting personalities and emotions and allows their musical voices to interweave and clash. The effect is extraordinary.
As thrilling and as astonishing as it is to see such expression in an opera based on a noted work of incredible power (simply one of the greatest dramas ever written), it does however inevitably become more and more difficult to sustain as the drama develops. Reimann is at his strongest in the first half - or at least he's operating at a level that is semi-endurable to an audience who are really put through a dark and deeply disturbing situation. It climaxes at the end of part one with Lear descending into madness at the treatment and rejection he has received from his daughters Goneril and Regan. 'Blow winds, blow!", he proclaims after an hour of intense drama, and in a scene that according to the composer was inspired by his own experience in Berlin at the end of the war, Reimann's music descends into its most cacophonic, the sound of a world collapsing entirely in a storm to end all storms.
Thereafter - particularly in Karoline Gruber's 2014 staging for the Hamburg State Opera - events are less related to the real-world and have more of a post-apocalyptic feel, where the world has changed unrecognisably. It can become very difficult to engage with the characters as they descend into a monstrous state, the world rocked by the decline of the house of Lear and the house of Gloucester. These two overlapping storylines feed off and inform one another, but although every effort - musical and dramatic - is employed here to create a similar dissonant interaction, it's difficult to get a sense of how they come together. Reimann's musical language, or perhaps merely the challenge of listening to it at length, becomes accordingly more difficult.
Karoline Gruber's direction attempts to address this by giving prominence to the Sprechstimme role of the Fool, using him as a means of grounding the work with a measure of real-world truth, as bizarre and contradictory as that might seem. This is however the role of the Fool in Shakespeare's 'King Lear', to say the things that others fear to express before the king, finding humorous ways to put the truth to him. As he says in the opera version "Truth is a dog to be whipped. A lapdog though may lie before the fire and stink". (A fine condensation of "Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out / When Lady the brach may stand by th' fire and stink" in the original). In the stage production here, he seems to be detached from the drama, a commentator, the action even stopping in places to allow him to speak. In the latter half, he is something of the conscience of Lear, a touchstone to draw him from madness back to a form of clarity, as terrible as the realisation of the truth now is to him.
The Fool in this way takes up a lot of the abstract expression of the themes that can't be fully expressed otherwise in the operatic dramatisation, and aligned with Reimann's music, it's a powerful device for the director to use. Gruber's production however is not short of other abstractions and ideas, finding different ways of expressing Lear's madness, from multiple doppelgängers to nightmarish visions, the old king's personal guard reduced symbolically to a pile of boots. A revolving set keeps the rapid succession of events flowing, imperceptibly changing, forming and reforming, using words to emphasise the conflict within the king and his kingdom. In line with Reimann's reworking of the title, there is however no traditional imagery of royal trappings, and no period detail in the production. It's vaguely 1940s/50s in dress and appearance, but generic. This is about larger themes than a king who foolishly abdicates too soon.
If the music wavers between unsettling and punishing, it's also a challenge for the singers to work within it and, at its most intense, rise above it. The casting here is superb for the variety of voices and for the sheer force of expression that they are capable of. Lear is not an older man in this production, and it's doubtful that an older man could have the force and stamina necessary to battle with the instrumental madness the way Bo Skovhus does. Yet he never bellows, always showing the underlying humanity in this Lear. It's no surprise that his three daughters all have formidable voices. There's volume and venom aplenty in Katja Pieweck's Goneril and an even more piercing pitch in Hellen Kwon's magnificently scary Regan. Cordelia might be initially reticent in Lear, but by the time she revisits the mad king, Siobhan Stagg shows the full strength of her underlying character. Simone Young's conducting of the Hamburg orchestra through this score is, to say the least, impressive.
The recording certainly benefits from the High Definition presentation on the Blu-ray release. The image is clear and detailed (although a few scenes take place behind a mesh curtain), and the audio tracks (PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1) are well balanced, handling the extreme sounds of the percussion and the high voices very well. The recording can be a little echoing in both mixes, but although the 5.1 mix gives a better separation of the orchestral playing, the focus is better when listened to on headphones. There is a 20 minute Making Of that consists mainly of interviews with Simone Young and Aribert Reimann discussing the history of the work, its composition, and the approach to producing it in Hamburg. The booklet contains a tracklist, a synopsis and an informative essay on the work. Subtitles are in German and English. These can only be selected and changed while the programme is playing, not from the menu. The Blu-ray is region-free.