Ernst Krenek - Karl V
Bayerische Staatsoper, 2019
Erik Nielsen, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Bo Skovhus,,Okka von der Damerau, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Dean Power, Anne Schwanewilms, Janus Torp, Scott MacAllister, Kevin Conners, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Michael Kraus, Peter Lobert, Mirjam Mesak, Anaïs Mejías, Natalia Kutateladze, Noa Beinart, Mechthild Großmann
Staatsoper.TV - 23 February 2018
Ernst Krenek is one of a small number of composers to compose and actually complete a full opera using the twelve-tone system, a technique that you would think might reduce the musical forces and resources commonly at the disposal of a composer dealing with such a complex historical subject as the life and death of the 16th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. One need only look Verdi's Don Carlo, which opens (in some versions) with the death of Charles V and the ascension to the throne of Carlo's father Philip II to see a very different musical and dramatic enactment of the death of the same king.
Like Schoenberg's take on questions of faith and dogma in his only (uncompleted) twelve-tone opera Moses und Aron, the technique however does have a unique ability to explore those issues from an intimate and personal perspective while also considering them in the light of something more vast and infinite. Krenek's Karl V sets about doing just that, the opera taking place on the death bed of the Holy Roman Emperor as he looks back retrospectively on the personal family matters and the childhood experiences that may have had an influence on the actions taken in his more public role.
Karl V is an ambitious work, a difficult work in its subject and musical presentation. Like any work with a historical figure as its subject it inevitably must reduce a life down to a few incidents, but like the best works of this kind - Boris Godunov comes to mind - Karl V somehow captures their importance and power for that period of their lives, but at the same time it reflect them as flawed human beings who ultimately become an irrelevance with death. There's very much a sense in Karl V that Charles is all too aware of that outcome as he lies sick and dying in the monastery of San Jeronimo de Yuste.
The proximity of death focusses the mind to some extent, but the king's illness and his need to justify his actions to his maker also skews his perspective on events. It's far from an impartial, objective or impassive view on the past, but one that, since Karl has believed that he is enacting God's will to unite the world to the faith, is very much the perspective of a self-important, self-pitying, egocentric (or deus-centric if I may coin a word) man faced with his own human weaknesses and mortality. Was this all preordained? What were the signs that set him on this path?
Karl's reflections take in a number of significant events, or events that once appeared significant but now seem to have less or no less importance than his family relationships; and even those have troubling concerns. On his deathbed, he remembers his mother Joanna the Mad, finding an apple in a worm as a child and seeing in it now corruption eating through the heart of the world. That leads him to the Diet of Worms and the rise of Martin Luther, to the defeat of Francis I at the Battle of Pavia, his sister Eleonore's marriage to Francis, as a way of suing for peace, and his enrichment through Pizzaro's plundering of the riches of Central and South America.
"Are these not anecdotes conditioned by the contingent nature of transitory individuals?" his sister accuses. Is that all history amounts to? Krenek's Karl V takes in the complex nature of the individual and their place in history, in the elements of chance, fate and the volition of the individual to effect not change, to make a mark on the world, but without ever being able - up until the last minute of their lives - to know whether they actions were right or how they will be judged by history. That's a tall order, but Krenek bundles those temporal shifts into the musical structure, running line forward and then reverse. Such details might not be obvious to every listener, but - like Schoenberg's Moses und Aron - the form is meaningfully tied to the content.
Like Castellucci's 2015 production of Moses und Aron in Paris, Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus tries to find an equivalent language to express the intimate and the infinite. Visually it's stunning, as La Fura dels Baus productions usually are, the scale of it incorporating heaven, hell and everything in-between. It captures the ambition of the work and the subject abstractly without being over-elaborate, over-literal or overloading information, and without having to rely too heavily on conventional symbolism other than where it is called for. The worm in the apple that is a globe of the world and Karl's mother Juana with his dead father shown in Pietà pose both attesting to Karl's elevate view of his own importance.
But it's an importance that, notwithstanding its approaching decline into irrelevance through death, is significant and worth reflecting on. Reflections feature heavily with mirrors in the background and even the floor covered in a shallow layer of water. Projections are used, acrobats hang down from the heavens on wires in elaborate formations, every state-of-the-art theatrical effect is employed, but purposefully for a work and a subject that has layers of complexity and ambitions of scope. It's a huge collaborative effort that impresses greatly, from lighting and choreography to the musical direction of Erik Nielsen and the commanding central performance of Bo Skovhus as Karl V. The Munich regular repertory players and the chorus are also impressive, all of it showing due consideration, effort and appreciation for what is clearly a challenging and ambitious opera.
Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV