Aribert Reimann - Die Gespenstersonate
Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1984
Friedemann Layer, Heinz Lukas-Kindermann, Hans Günter Nöcker, Martha Mödl, Horst Hiestermann, David Knitson, Gudrun Sieber, Donald Grobe, William Dooley, Barbara Scherler, Kaja Borris
Arthaus Musik - DVD
Aribert Reimann's chamber opera Die Gespenstersonate (The Ghost Sonata) is an adaptation of the play by the same name by August Strindberg and it's a fairly faithful one too, in tone as much as in its translation of Strindberg's text. It's a typically bleak outlook from the Swedish dramatist on human relations, cynical of family structures, marriage and the social values that extend through them out into society. It's a familiar subject also for Reimann, who has explored similar themes in adaptations of various other classical and literary works, in Lear and most recently, in Medea. Those are both large scale works that make use of huge orchestral forces and jarring cacophonic music for effect, but Die Gespenstersonate achieves much the same impact through Reimann's powerful use of a chamber orchestra, the arrangement putting one in mind of the sinister undercurrents created in Britten's The Turn of the Screw.
As the title indicates, ghosts also play a part in Die Gespenstersonate, but they are likewise scarcely any more unsettling or disturbed than the 'living' characters in the play. At the centre of the work is the Director Jakob Hummel, a tyrannical force who has bought up the debts of the Colonel and aims to assert his authority over his estate in the same way he does with his own household. He introduces the student, the son of the Colonel to the various figures in the house, berating them for old crimes they have committed, intent on "pulling up the weeds to reveal the crime", although we find that the Director is far from guiltless himself.
The bizarre household includes a living Mummy and even some ghosts that only the student is able to see, all of them silently going through the motions of living together in mutual hatred and suspicion, but unable to escape from the crimes that bind them together. "We've parted ways countless times", the Mummy confesses, "but then we're always drawn back together again". The Director wants to destroy it all, but the Mummy believes that there is a way of erasing the past, through repentance for the sins that have been committed.
Reimann's version of the work would appear to put this idea into a German post-war context, where the sins of the past still hang over the people, binding them together in silent guilt, casting an influence over the present day that prevents them moving forward. Despite being separated from that time and free of guilt, even the student is affected by those actions in the past, repaying what he is led to believe are his father's, principally in the ghost that arises in the shape of a lost woman who falls into a pit whenever he tries to reach for her. The split level stage of the Deutsche Oper's 1984 production, emphasises the division between past and present, the upper level inhabited by the grotesque characters of the household seen through the transparent floor.
Reimann's score is moody and unsettling with deep low tones, creating and edginess between the characters in the way that the instruments weave between one another and clash in dissonance. The scoring for the voices creates a similar effect, some of the roles very wide in tessitura in a way that is typical for Reimann, with sharp rises followed by deep plunges. Much of the text of the play is largely spoken-singing, but when Reimann uses the full range of expression for the content, breaking into sung phrases when required for extra emphasis. The young student, who perhaps is led through a greater emotional journey than the rest of the fossilised inhabitants, seems to have the biggest emotional journey in this regard.
Recorded at its world premiere in Berlin in 1984, the performances are everything they ought to be, with a striking cast taking on the challenging roles well. Released on DVD as part of Arthaus Musik's series of archive Deutsche Oper releases, the image quality is inevitably Standard Definition only, but the 4:3 image is bright and clear, capturing well the whole tone and mood of the piece as it was performed at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. The PCM Stereo audio track is excellent. There are no extra features other than the information and synopsis provided in the enclosed booklet. The DVD-9 disc is all-region compatible, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian.