Arvo Pärt - Adam's Passion
Noblessner Foundry, Tallinn, 2015
Tõnu Kaljuste, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs, Michael Theophanous, Andrea Lauren Brown, David James, Maria Valdmaa, Marianne Pärna, Endrik Üksvärav, Tiit Kogerman, Tõnis Kaumann, Raul Mikson, Henry Tiisma, Andreas Väljamäe
ARTE Concert streaming - October 2015
Recent years have seen a few significant anniversaries celebrated for Mozart, Strauss, Verdi, Wagner, Gluck, Rameau and Britten, but it's just as important to acknowledge and celebrate modern composers' work in their own lifetime. Such was the case last year with events for Harrison Birtwistle's and Peter Maxwell Davies' 80th birthdays, but these were relatively low-key compared to the scale of international concerts, releases and celebrations for the 80th birthday of Arvo Pärt. It's particularly surprising considering that, Gorecki and Taverner aside, Arvo Pärt's tonal compositions and their religious content seems to be at odds with modern music in an increasingly secular world, but his work undoubtedly captures a spiritual human dimension that it is hard to find elsewhere.
One of the most extraordinary musical events involving Arvo Pärt this year has been his collaboration with Robert Wilson for the creation of Adam's Passion at the Noblessner Foundry in Tallinn in May of this year. Composed almost entirely out of existing works written many years apart with no obvious connection between them, it's hard to imagine them adapted to a coherent dramatic stage work. Even with Adam's Lament (2010) at the core of the work, followed by Tabula Rasa (1977) and then Miserere (1989/92), with a new prologue Sequentia (2014) as overture, the works are more contemplative in nature and not written with any dramatic presentation in mind.
Fortunately, that suits Robert Wilson rather well. Even in regular opera productions, Wilson has a unique way of working with shapes, symbols, colour and light that has little to do with regular narrative representation. He is undoubtedly at his best however when unconstrained by the need to serve narrative at all, such as in his groundbreaking Einstein on the Beach with Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs. His approach to the spiritual side of Arvo Pärt's music in the contemplation of Adam's Passion reduced to pure symbolism is as perfect a fit to the world/opera view of Robert Wilson as you can imagine. When you are dealing with the question of Adam, a subject that is Biblical, allegorical, symbolic and essentially spiritual, there is really no other option. A subject this vast in scale, with all its philosophical, theological and spiritual associations is never going to fit adequately into a narrative format.
Arvo Pärt's music is certainly capable of relating deeply to such matters, his own search to find the purest musical expression of his explorations into these areas coming down to his resonant 'tintinnabuli' style. It's the music of a composer at peace with himself but not in denial about the nature of humanity, their weaknesses and their detachment from their spiritual side. Pain is a constant theme, but it's the "healthy pain" of Wagner's Parsifal, accepting and embracing it as a part of what it means to be human. That doesn't mean that it's complacent either. Pärt's music is an expression of a continual search for answers, and of the beauty that is to be found in such contemplation.
It's this thematic core and treatment that in a way that makes the separate pieces chosen for Adam's Passion perfectly complementary, if not obviously adding up to something that is of a whole. Wilson and the composer do however fit the works together in a way that forms a meaningful arc with greater coherence. Sequentia and Adam's Lament deal with the question of original sin and the banishment from Eden, Tabula Rasa becomes a kind of search to regain Paradise/Innocence, trying to reconnect with the spiritual dimension that has been lost to a material view of the world, while Miserere weighs up mankind's efforts in the Dies Irae of Judgement Day.
From Genesis to the Apocalypse is still a considerable subject to depict on-stage, the simplicity of the words of the choral works and what they describe having to take in a lot of other complex ideas and associations. Wilson plays with the apparent simplicity of the words and the musical arrangements in his familiar manner, using very little in the way of props, but working with angular shapes, a limited palette of colour, movement and light, as well as considerable amounts of dry ice this time. But primarily light. There's justification alone in the subject for this - Adam's Passion is essentially "a search for light" according to the composer - even if light were not the main medium through which Wilson usually expresses ideas. It's hard to imagine a more perfect and complementary matching of visual ideas to musical themes.
And really, Wilson's designs looks incredible in the setting of the Noblessner Foundry in Tallinn. The first half an hour of the hour and a half long piece takes us through Adam's Lament with little more than an entirely naked man (what else for Adam?), holding a rock and walking slowly (what else for Wilson?) towards a branch at the end of a long platform extending right out into the hall, placing the branch on his head and making his way slowly back. He's not even Adam in this conception, just known as 'the Man' (Michael Theophanous). Several other figures float across the stage; a woman (Lucinda Childs), a young boy, a young girl and an old man cross the stage during Tabula Rasa and Miserere, with the addition of one or two more objects. Whatever you take from their movements, everything is carefully placed, choreographed and measured to create an indelible impression.
It doesn't sound like a great deal but in such a setting every small movement, every subtle change of colour and light is noticed and, when combined with the words of the choral singing, adds significance to the power of the music itself. It's not about illustrating the music as illuminating it, filling the stage with a visual representation of the inner light of Pärt's music. It's a striking achievement, one that better than most testifies to the unique and special place that Arvo Pärt still holds in the world of contemporary classical music.
Links: Adam's Passion, Accentus