Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Hosokawa - Stilles Meer (Hamburg, 2016)

Toshio Hosokawa - Stilles Meer

Staatsoper Hamburg, 2016

Kent Nagano, Oriza Hirata, Susanne Elmark, Mihoko Fujimura, Bejun Mehta, Viktor Rud, Marek Gasztecki

EuroArts - DVD

The impact of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami on Fukushima in Japan is unquantifiable in human terms and surely a challenge for any artistic endeavour, literature, film, or even documentary to fully depict. The nature of the event, the devastation it caused and the lives it took are difficult enough to deal with, but the longer term disaster set in motion by the damage caused to the nuclear reactor in Fukushima and the implications this has for future generations is a lot more to take on. That however is exactly what Toshio Hosokawa attempts to do in his opera Stilles Meer - Silent Sea, written for the Hamburg Opera in 2016.

Even before the opera starts, we get some indication of how the composer is going to approach such a task, introducing other sounds, influences and techniques in order to extend the range of what opera can achieve. Somewhat unconventionally, the first sounds that break the silence at the start of the opera are the sounds of the sea and the voice of a robot warning that the site at Fukushima is currently a safe zone free from radiation. Nature and technology sit uneasily side by side and the danger that they pose is underlined by the first heavy percussive sounds of an earthquake and aftershocks.

The stage set for the Hamburg world premiere of Stilles Meer also sets out to create a similar uncomfortable fusion of the natural and the synthetic. A platform leads down to a patch of blue sea that is covered with a circular glass framework that suggests the shape of a nuclear reactor. Rods hang down from the sky instead of clouds. The fishermen of Fukushima, celebrating the lantern festival of O-Higan, carry globes that look like they are glowing with radiation. The impression, matching the mood created by Hosokawa's music, is that everything has changed, all that is natural has been altered and distorted.

The human story that takes place in this environment is also one where the composer and librettist attempt a fusion of ideas and cultures in order to get across the deeper impact of the disaster on people's lives. Claudia's 12 year old son Max died when the tsunami struck the coast of Japan, lost when out on a fishing trip. His body and that of Claudia's partner Takashi have never been found among the debris that continues to be washed ashore. Stefan, Claudia's former partner and father of Max, has come to see her, but is shocked to find that Claudia still hasn't accepted what has happened.

Takashi's sister Haruko has a plan to help Claudia begin the grieving process. Claudia is a dancer who makes a living teaching the local children and Haruko believes that Claudia might be able to find a way to relate to what has happened through her love of the Nôh drama 'Sumidagawa'. It's the same Nôh drama that Benjamin Britten based Curlew River on, the story of a mother who has lost her son and is unable to accept his death. but here it retains its Buddhist origins. It is only through the chanting of a Buddhist prayer that the mother in 'Sumidagawa' is able to take her grief into another dimension and Haruko hopes that Claudia might be able to relate to her own grief on this same level.

Essentially, Stilles Meer is itself an attempt to collectively take the suffering of Fukushima to another dimension where it can be processed, and evidently that is through the transformative process of art in music and opera. That's a tall order and it's difficult to judge the merit of a work on those terms, but it's clear that the composer believes very strongly in the spiritual side of music and his opera is a sincere attempt to process a significant event of indescribable horror. The approach adopted by Hosokawa, director Oriza Higata and conductor Kent Nagano certainly makes every effort to create a suitable reflective environment for that to occur.

Hosokawa makes good use of silence and stillness to achieve that, using the rhythms of nature and obviously that relies primarily on the motions of the sea. The music rises and falls and maintains a low background presence even in the quieter moments. This allows room for reflection, which is also the role to a large extent of the other members of the Fukushima fishing community heard in the opera. There is indeed something of a tone of an oratorio or a requiem about the opera in these passages, a respect even for the power of the sea and a wariness of technology that would be instilled in the people who live there.

The rather more unpredictable side of the sea and the devastation that it can cause is there in the voices of the principal singers. Susanne Elmark gives a great performance, channeling the forces at work within her character that occasionally spill over into uncontrollable emotional outbursts. Mihoko Fujimura is like an unshakable vessel, battered and beaten by the tides but still afloat. There's deep emotion there too, her song to the "shoes on the beach" deeply affecting. Bejun Mehta sings "Claudia!" a lot, with an occasional exclamation of "Max!", but in many ways this is another refrain of appeal like the later Buddhist prayer, and Mehta's countertenor is still sweetly voiced.

Whether Stilles Meer achieves what it sets out to is difficult to say, but it's an important work that addresses a significant terrible real-world event and tries to make some kind of sense out it it. There might not be a sense of resolution or complete closure at the end of Stilles Meer, but unlike Philippo Perocco's similarly themed Aquagranda, which only seemed capable of providing resolution to the 1966 flooding of Venice in an historical context, there is an indication in Hosokawa's work that there's a deeper learning and healing process to follow and that the process necessarily must be an on-going one.

Links: Staatsoper Hamburg