Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Srnka - South Pole (Munich, 2016 - Webcast)

Miroslav Srnka - South Pole

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Kirill Petrenko, Hans Neuenfels, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson, Mojca Erdmann, Tara Erraught, Dean Power, Kevin Conners, Matthew Grills, Joshua Owen Mills, Tim Kuypers, John Carpenter, Christian Rieger, Sean Michael Plumb

ARTE Concert - 5th February 2016

Commissioned to write a new opera for the Bayerische Staatsoper, the young Czech composer Miroslav Srnka and Tasmanian writer Tom Holloway have found a subject that is inherently dramatic and even operatic in South Pole. Working from the existing documentation of Captain Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen's race to be the first to reach the South Pole, all the rivalry between the two explorers is laid out; the personalities, the tensions and the drama and danger of the expeditions. The setting itself offers great possibilities for exploration in the musical treatment and for the stage production, and both certainly offer a great deal of inventiveness even if ultimately the subject and the inconsistencies within the treatment can't help but invite its own defeat.

Unless, of course, you consider inconsistency to be an essential part of the make-up of the work and its subject. It's very evident from early on that South Pole wants to tell the two stories of Scott and Amundsen simultaneously but separately, a 'double opera' that contrasts the experience of one with the other. The opera opens with the famous telegram message sent by Amundsen to Scott, where the British team learn that, contrary to reports that the Norwegian team were setting off for the North Pole, they are now in direct competition with the British explorers on their Antarctic expedition to the South Pole. The morse tapping, sung out by Amundsen, establishes a rhythmic connection between the two teams and it holds for a while as they each encounter similar challenges and problems in their preparations. By the second half those paths have gradually diverged, and the opera itself also seems to lose direction, even if that is to some extent intended.

The opera then is successful in as far as it adheres to the tone and content of its source material and subject, but it's also a victim to the challenge of maintaining the complexity that these divergent paths take. Using the source material available, South Pole does establish well the personality of the two explorers, but it also attempts to speculatively delve more deeply into aspects of their personality and love-lives. As far as outward appearances go, both are practical and single-minded men - and the John Adams-like musical arrangements of the beginning, hold them in this rhythm. There are minor differences in their preparation, Scott fatally choosing ponies for the expedition, Amundsen dogs, but first and foremost in their mind is the determination to beat their rival and the unthinkable consequences of failure.

The two expeditions take place then simultaneously on the stage, and the gaps between the men and their attitudes grow as they face the challenges of the merciless conditions in the Antarctic. Amundsen shows little concern for the deprivations of his colleagues, much less any sentimentality they show for loved ones back home, refusing to even let them keep journals or write letters but keeping one of his own to be published after the adventure. Scott is also very practical-minded and necessarily so, but any sympathy he has for the pain endured in the suffering of his team is tempered by the greater torment he feels that Amundsen will beat him to the South Pole and render his efforts meaningless.

That much might be interpreted by the historical facts and public face of the individuals concerned, but South Pole is not an all-male affair. Kathleen Scott appears as a figure to show a deeper side to Scott as more than just an explorer, but more than just the wife of the explorer, a projection or a vision conjured by letters, the creators of the opera attempt to depict her as a person in her own right. A similar approach to Amundsen proves more problematic but it serves to provide a strong contrast. Amundsen refuses to discuss his love-life with his colleagues, but is nonetheless 'visited' by the figure of the 'Landlady' - whether this is a fictional creation or not I don't know - who he once had an affair with. Whether all this works, or intentionally fractures the divisions between the men - their loneliness emphasised more than any purpose or sentiment that unites them - it all comes together in a marvellous, if somewhat unconventional quartet close to the end of the first half of the opera.

After that, it becomes harder to hold the work together and the music becomes more complex in its unconventional rhythms and tonal levels, with up to 100 individual parts being played at any one time by the orchestra. The two halves of the story take very different turns and the music accompanying them accordingly jars atonally in their individual experiences and in how they sit uneasily side-by-side. If there's anything that holds South Pole together as two sides of a related story that almost never overlaps, it's Hans Neuenfels' stunning stage direction for the piece. Brightly lit in a blinding white background - as you might expect - the set is nonetheless highly stylised and expressionistic, a black X marking the spot up at the back of the stage, reminding us constantly of the importance of the goal. A line divides the stage down the centre, with Scott's expedition on the left and Amundsen on the right, both playing out simultaneously.

Principally then, although the other roles are all well developed, the opera plays out as a two-hander between Scott and Amundsen, and consequently it needs two strong personalities in the creation of these roles. If both Rolando Villazón and Thomas Hampson could be said for one reason or another to have had better days, there's no sign of it in South Pole. Both men imprint a strong character into their singing and performance in what are evidently very intense roles. The unconventional rhythms of the drama and characterisation don't favour much in the way of lyricism, and the staccato English-language libretto doesn't always help, but the performances of both men are impressive. Tara Erraught and Mojca Erdmann likewise do much to bring Kathleen Scott and the Landlady to life and widen the dimension of the opera. It still never entirely feels like it's successfully of a whole and it becomes harder to maintain interest or find a central core that holds it together as the work progresses, but South Pole is an ambitious piece that has much of interest in its component parts.

Links: ARTE Concert, Bayerische Staatsoper