Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Dallapiccola - Il Prigioniero / Rihm - Das Gehege (Brussels, 2018)

Luigi Dallapiccola - Il Prigioniero
Wolfgang Rihm - Das Gehege

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

Franck Ollu, Andrea Breth, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Georg Nigl, John Graham-Hall, Julian Hubbard, Guillaume Antoine

La Monnaie MM Streaming -  January 2018


The challenges of writing an opera in the serial music form could perhaps be measured by how few actually make it to completion and by the shortness of length of those that are actually finished. Even Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve-tone dodecaphonic system only completed one short opera in this form, Von Heute auf Morgen, and left his one longer masterpiece Moses und Aron unfinished. Berg likewise left his the troubled Lulu unfinished at the time of his death, while Wozzeck only has twelve-tone elements. There are however other notable extended operas that are largely written in the serial form including Bernd Alois Zimmerman's Die Soldaten and Ernst Krenek's Karl V. As Wozzeck, Lulu and Moses und Aron testify however, while the composition of such complex works presents considerable and sometimes insurmountable challenges, they also bring specialised demands for staging, performance and use of musical resources.

As formidable as they often appear to be however there is nothing limiting about the works in terms of musical expression, and Luigi Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero finds a terrific range of expression even within the limitations of a 50 minute work set almost entirely within the confines of a prison cell. Just as Schoenberg was able to extend the situation of a biblical story to explore more personal ideas and obsessions, the richness and uniqueness of the musical language available permits Dallapiccola to delve more deeply into the themes that arise for a political prisoner in relation to freedom, political expression, hope and disillusionment, and apply it to greater concerns in the troubled times of the 1940s.

Il Prigioniero opens then with a dramatic soprano voice, the mother of the prisoner, speaking out at the horror of the regime that has led to her son being held and tortured in prison. Dallapiccola follows this cry of despair with a lament from a large chorus, "Lord have mercy on us. Our hope lies in you". It's in this state that we find the prisoner about to give up all hope until a single word changes his outlook and insinuates itself into the mood of the whole piece; "fratello" - brother. The jailer who offers this lifeline to grasp follows it with another word, "spera" - have faith. Finding the door left open, one perhaps more metaphorical than real considering the developments, the prisoner follows the path of hope down the corridor outside his cell.

The chorus fill in again, their lament turned to praise for the light, which brings an "Alleluia" out of the prisoner for freedom, but it's premature and illusory, as the path is one that leads to his execution. The fullness of expression, the use of words, the chorus, as well as the post-romantic sweep of the score in the dynamic between the dark and the light is one that recalls a similar use of these elements in Moses und Aron. It's brought out fully in Dallapiccola's score, given wonderful expression in Franck Ollu's direction at La Monnaie in Brussels, and in the writing for the contrasting voices of Ángeles Blancas Gulín as the mother, Georg Nigl as the prisoner and John Graham-Hall offering hope in the form of the jailer only to take it away as the Grand Inquisitor.

Andrea Breth's direction also tries to give as much expression as can be found in the work, in the darkness, in the cage of a cell, opening it up with light, bringing sudden cuts to black, stripping the stage bare at the conclusion when all hope is gone and opening the back of the stage to a blinding heavenly light that shines out on the emptiness within. It was Andrea Breth who worked with Franck Ollu (and Nigl and Graham-Hall) to similarly striking effect on Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz at La Monnaie in 2015 and the collaboration reunites to present another Rihm short opera that is paired brilliantly with Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero.

Although deriving from the other half of the twentieth century, Rihm's Das Gehege (The Enclosure) also has roots in the post-Romantic, in Richard Strauss rather than Schoenberg, although not so much the lush orchestrations of latter-day Strauss as the jagged rupturing of post-Romanticism in the expressionism of Salome and Elektra. In the expression of a woman who has captured an eagle and sets it free only to kill it when she realises that it no longer has the vitality and strength to survive, Das Gehege bears a similar tone of intense dark eroticism, with even a hint of the fantasy world symbolism of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Breth's direction draws out the Salome-like underlying erotic fascination in a woman who is filled with dark desires and ends up killing the thing she professes to love by having the woman in the cage, the enclosure, joined by a series of men with bird heads and wing attachments in a dance of death. Outbursts of anguished singing are broken up with brief instrumental expressions of lust and fury that are accompanied in the darkness by disorientating strobe lighting that leaves behind a trail of bodies. More than just in the use of the same cage that held the prisoner - the woman likewise a prisoner of fatal unquenchable urges - there are other visual cross-references and correspondences made with Il Prigioniero, notably Georg Nigl playing one of her avian victims and a staircase that offers a descent as much as a way out.

As explosive as the musical expression is, its fractured structure carrying an underlying tug of lyrical romanticism, a considerable amount of responsibility for carrying the force of the whole of Das Gehege lies with the soprano singing the Frau, the only singing role in the opera. Ángeles Blancas Gulín, already showing stamina and ability to meet the highly pitched demands of the mother in Il Prigioniero, gives another impressive performance here that is electrifying and terrifying, striking that balance between being derangedly in thrall to her passions, but tempering any over-intensity with a seductive lyrical tone. She has to do that while climbing the cage, hanging upside down over the shoulder of one of her paramours or sprawled in one shape or another and somehow never falters a note.

Links: La Monnaie,