Monday, 30 November 2015

Haas - Morgen und Abend (Royal Opera House, 2015 - London)

Georg Friedrich Haas - Morgen und Abend

Royal Opera House, 2015

Michael Boder, Graham Vick, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Christoph Pohl, Sarah Wegener, Will Hartmann, Helena Rasker

Royal Opera House - 28 November 2015 

There must have been some kind of communication breakdown between the stage and the audience on the first night of Georg Friedrich Haas's new opera Morgen und Abend when it opened at the Royal Opera House on 13th November. When I caught the work at the last of its five world premiere performances at Covent Garden, I saw little that corresponded with some of the indifferent to outright dismissive reviews of the work in the press. On the contrary, this was a spellbinding piece that held the audience rapt over its 90 minute running time, was warmly received and even enthusiastically applauded at the curtain call.

Undoubtedly however, the subject and the musical approach of the work are very different from what one is accustomed to hearing on the main stage at Covent Garden. The meaning or progress of the work would be difficult to grasp simply because it is about something that isn't capable of being easily defined and for which there are is no familiar musical accompaniment. By which I mean that the subject is Death, and it's not accompanied here by either by the dramatic build-up and crescendos that usually accompany an on-stage expiration, nor by mournful laments that follow. Rather in his adaptation of Jon Fosse's drama 'Morgon og Kveld', G. F. Haas's Morgen und Abend (Morning and Evening) explores the moment of transition between those two more familiar states - the moment of death itself.

That, admittedly, leaves the listener not quite sure where they are or how they should be responding to the lack of dramatic narrative. In the long prologue, an old fisherman called Olai (Klaus Maria Brandauer) sits in a grey sterile landscape, unsure himself where he is or what he is supposed to be doing. In Graham Vick's production design, there's a door, but it stands alone, there are chairs and a bed, but also an abandoned fishing boat. Everything slowly revolves, time operating in a circular fashion, where the ending is also the beginning. Gradually, the old man comes to realise that he is dead, but paradoxically, he is reliving the moment when his son Johannes was born. Johannes is no sooner born than Olai makes his exit through the door, and Johannes is no sooner born than he too makes his way onto the grey stage of his death.

What has happened in between is ...well, life - and Morgen und Abend isn't particularly concerned with that. A few articles have suggested that the lack of familiarity in the English speaking world with Jon Fosse's work, in contrast to his high literary standing in Europe, could have further alienated the UK audience, but the question of passing over is common in literature, and even in mainstream cinema (in 'Ghost' or 'The Sixth Sense'). While deaths frequently occur in many operas, it's true however that exploration of death itself is not at all common. The dead may have a voice in opera, going right back 400 years to the earliest works by Peri and Monteverdi's on the Orpheus myth 400 years ago, but even though the state of death is considered in Orpheus' journey to the underworld, and it is particularly the main focus in Gluck's version of the myth - opera's treatment of death (even in the martyrdom of Donizetti's Poliuto or Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites) is almost always qualified by desire to live.

Life is not entirely absent from Fosse and Haas's Morgen und Abend, but it's a shadow world that is far beyond reach. That fishing boat has already sailed. Johannes, still unable to comprehend where he is and what has happened, is confused by the appearance of his dead wife and his living daughter, but also by the need he feels to visit his old friend Peter, help him cut his hair and go out fishing with him once again. As the appearance of Olai on the stage just before Johannes appears, this (Death) is a place where time no longer follows familiar rules. Everyone exists here simultaneously, but they are also alone. It's not a place either for contemplation of one's life or weighing up the balance of one's achievements - it just is.

If there is any justification for there being a communication breakdown between the opera and the audience then, it's hardly due to the content of the libretto, as "difficult" and uncommon as the subject it deals with might be. The synopsis is summarised in a single line in the Royal Opera House programme - "Morgen und Abend (Morning and Evening) is the struggle of Johannes into and out of life". There's not much you have to 'get' here. A more valid concern appears to be the inability on the first night to hear Klaus Maria Brandauer's Olai's spoken monologue over the orchestra and percussion. This criticism seems to have been taken on board at Covent Garden, and when performed at the final performance on the 28th November, Brandauer had evidently been hitched up to a radio microphone and could be clearly heard in the mix.

I would also find it difficult to accept that anyone would find the music of Georg Friedrich Haas difficult to grasp either. It's true that the Austrian composer has a much higher profile elsewhere in Europe, and his work is not as well known in the UK. It's also true that Haas works experimentally in improvisation and microtonalites, as well as with works that have directions to be performed in pitch darkness, but his music is not inaccessible or only of interest to music scientists. Nor is it cold and theoretical, but as Morgen und Abend and the composer's other works in the lyric medium testify, Haas is very much interested in transitional human states, as uncommon and indefinable as some of those might appear to be.

In Morgen und Abend, the music is beautiful, haunting and fully connected to the interim nature of the state of non-existence, of being neither here nor there. Notes hypnotically slip and slide, the pitch is bent, stretched and altered, wavering between one state and another with percussive jolts thundering and echoing moments of confusion, recognition and realisation. There's a hypnotic flow here that finds a musical equivalent for Jon Fosse's unpunctuated flow of words, but Haas also writes beautifully for the voice, with variety of expression (in spoken dialogue and singing) and in the blending together of voices and the music, sections of which are underpinned with the ahhhh-ah hum of a rather more musically conventional heavenly chorus. A strong cast provided all the necessary colour.

Morgen und Abend is a modern opera in the truest sense. It's musically progressive and experimental, seeking to find the truest musical expression for its subject in an inventive way, not falling back on familiar operatic models or musical conventions but not destroying them either. There are no grand ambitions here to satisfy public or critical tastes by making grand musical or dramatic gestures, but rather Georg Friedrich Haas follows the artistic imperative of exploring the subject through his own musical language, and Morgen und Abend quietly impresses.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast a recording of Morgen und Abend at the Royal Opera House on Saturday 5th December.  It will be available for listening on the BBC iPlayer for four weeks after this date.

Links: Royal Opera House, BBC Radio 3