Arnold Schoenberg - Von Heute auf Morgen
Opéra de Lyon, 2012
Bernhard Kontarsky, John Fulljames, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, Ivi Karnezi, Rui Dos Santos, Wolfgang Newerla, Marin Bisson, Pierre Lucat
Schoenberg's one act opera Von Heute auf Morgen might have been chosen by Opera Lyon as one of the works to accompany each of the three parts of Puccini's Il Trittico in their Puccini + production of 2012 but it's by no means a 'filler' work. It was partnered with Il Tabarro (Hindemith's Sancta Susanna was performed alongside Suor Angelica and Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy alongside Gianni Schicchi) presumably for its depiction of marriage problems and questions of infidelity, but there are hints - suggested in this production directed by John Fulljames - that Von Heute auf Morgen is more than a middle-class relationship drama.
It does however initially appear very much like one of Richard Strauss's marital dramas such as Intermezzo. A husband and wife return after an evening dinner party, musing on the events and the people they have met. The husband is open in his admiration for a seductive lady he met there, an old friend of his wife's who appears to be much more modern in her ways. The wife agrees that she has transformed into something beautiful, unrecognisable from the person she was before. The wife has likewise taken a fancy to the Singer, finding something in his voice that speaks to her, makes her feel alive, fresh in a way that she doesn't feel any longer with her husband.
Having a young child, who is woken up by their loud discussions and disagreements, both the husband and the wife are clearly looking for something that has gone missing from their marriage. The husband is attracted to a free spirit who seems to be a woman of the world, while he claims his wife has become a Hausfrau. The wife has lost the edge of excitement that lies in flirtation, becoming mired in habit, feeling detached and alone by her husband's seeming indifference to her now. The short opera develops then into a fantasy imagination of the other people they could have been or could be with other people.
So yes, on the surface certainly Von Heute auf Morgen appears to be a fairly straightforward and commonplace domestic dispute that has been played out countless times. On the other hand, one of the most significant points about the work is the time it was written and the fact that it is written entirely in the 12-tone method developed by Schoenberg. This puts a different spin on matters. In many ways, the opera is about imagining how music - mired in habit and custom - can regain its edge of freshness, newness and excitement. Von Heute auf Morgen can be seen as Schoenberg's attempt to consider how modern music could shake up old stuffy traditions.
But - as you often find with Strauss - Schoenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen acknowledges that it's by no means easy to shake off the attractions of music's past. Traces of Romanticism, of the composer's former thrall to the influence of Wagner, can be heard in the arrangements that seek to express the conflict between the old and the new. It's even explicitly stated in the Singer's use of Romantic identification with Siegfried and quotes from Das Rheingold that seduce the Wife, but how can one resist the attraction? How can one be truly modern? How can one be true to oneself?
Schoenberg seems to take comfort or inspiration from the words of the couple in the libretto as justification for his new approach. "We live with ideas. They live with past hopes". Schoenberg's couple would appear to decide to put their differences aside and settle for the comfort of the familiar when they reject the attractions of the other free and easy couple and settle for family domestic conformity, but there are different ways you can view this. John Fulljames's direction helps emphasise the point that it's not about following fashion as much as following one's own inner calling, but at the same time not he finds a welcome measure of lightness and humour in the one-act opera that serves it well.
The set designs for the production presents a number of apparently attractive alternatives to the 1920s period bourgeois idea of modernity that the couple inhabit (Von Heute auf Morgen was first performed in 1930). The period and the paintings on the wall change from hard-edge modernism to lush soft-lighted decadence, through to the Pop-Art of the 60s and the psychedelic 70s, as the couple flirt with the idea of embracing change and novelty as an alternative to conformity and habit. Eventually they reject each of these possibilities - and the lure of the attractive other couple - and instead recognise the value of what they have. Fashions change, but love remains; living it from day to day is what matters and is what it means to be truly modern.
Schoenberg's 12-tone serialism also points to another way of being modern; of music not merely being just for dramatic accompaniment or illustration, but a means rather to explore interior lives that lie outside the conventional measurements of space and time. Conducted here at Lyon by Bernhard Kontarsky, the intricacies of the arrangements are managed beautifully, giving a sense of all those possibilities that Schoenberg suggested. The production flows with impressive performances from Magdalena Anna Hofmann and Wolfgang Newerla as the Husband and Wife couple, but Ivi Karnezi and Rui Dos Santos are also fine, offering persuasive alternatives as the Friend and the Singer.
Links: Opéra de Lyon, Opera Platform