Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Henze - Das Floß der Medusa (Amsterdam, 2018)

Hans Werner Henze - Das Floß der Medusa

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam 2018

Ingo Metzmacher, Romeo Castellucci, Dale Duesing, Bo Skovhus, Lenneke Ruiten

ARTE Concert - 26 March 2018

Romeo Castellucci's productions seem to be well-suited to the drawing out the allegorical aspects out of works that have a level of musical and thematic abstraction that can be adapted to address current affairs and contemporary subjects of interest, albeit often somewhat obliquely. Hence we've seen Castellucci bring his unique individual touch to Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Bach's St Matthew's Passion, to Wagner's Tannhäuser and Parsifal, but also managed to approach and make real mythological themes in Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice. In all those works there is also a very marked struggle between two different and almost diametrically opposed forces, between life and death, the physical and the spiritual, the word and the deed.

There's another world very much concerned with strong divisions, in the space between life and death, but also with a political undercurrent suggested but never made explicit in Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa). Again, the work is not a conventional work; an oratorio rather than an opera, and again Castellucci strives not only to find ways to illustrate the nature of the opposing forces at play and the relationship between them, but find a modern allegorical way to illustrate and give them a relatable contemporary relevance, and also in some way that is difficult to define, turn the focus back on the either self-reflexively on the theatrical nature of opera or even back onto the audience.

The opposing forces in Henze's work appear to be easily identifiable but in reality also hold complex layers which are related to the time it was created in 1968. On a surface level, Das Floß der Medusa is very obviously inspired by and named after Théodore Géricault famous painting "Le Radeau de la Méduse", painted not long after the notorious naval incident it depicts. In 1816, the French naval frigate the Medusa was shipwrecked not far from its destination, but still 108 miles off the coast of Senegal. The governor, the captain and the ships officers took to the available lifeboats, leaving 154 crew to put together a makeshift raft that was initially towed, but then cut off and left to the mercy of the currents. When the raft was picked up 13 days later, only 15 people survived on the raft.

There's a clear commentary on the class divisions between those privileged to be saved and those left to fend for themselves in what turned out to be a horrendous journey, subjected to deprivation, starvation, dehydration and cannibalism that caused an enormous scandal. Théodore Géricault's painting, created in 1819, depicting the moment that the survivors first spy and attempt to attract the attention of the dot of a ship on the horizon, is painted like a glorious memorial to those who suffered, defiantly provocative and unflinching of the reality of what was endured by those on the raft of the Medusa, and of a corrupt regime that allows such inequalities to persist.

Similar political and social implications can be found in Henze's oratorio, written in 1968 in another period of social and political activism to which Henze was very much connected. Das Floß der Medusa however doesn't make any overt reference to then contemporary issues, depicting the journey and fate of those aboard the raft of the Medusa strictly in historical terms. The nature of the struggle between two vast forces is very much evident in the make-up of the roles of the oratorio. Only one person is identified, Jean-Charles, the mulatto at the head of the raft who is seen waving a red shirt at the approaching rescue ship, the other two solo roles being Death and Charon who acts as narrator and as a guide to lead the chorus on board the raft from the side of the living to the dead.

Fairly stark divisions then that draw the lines between the living and the dead, between the privileged and the poor, but also the struggle that each individual on the raft has to make, the "perspective of an end that is separated only by courage or cowardice", which is how I think it is described. Romeo Castellucci's innovative approach, using projection screens, text and symbols, contributes a few other levels that bring out the underlying political subtext of the work and place it in a modern day context where the message is not overt, but hard to miss all the same. Like his Orphée et Eurydice - and indeed his production of Moses und Aron - there's a large screen that places a barrier that highlights the division between the message and the work, between the audience and the performers.

Playing out in parallel to the story of the Raft of the Medusa, Castellucci projects a film made in present-day Senegal, where a Muslim man, Mamadon Ndaye, is brought out to the exact point where the Medusa was shipwrecked and left in the sea for four days. Without having to make it explicit, there is evidently a commentary to be made about the inequality between the prosperous nations of the west and the poorer nations suffering disease, poverty, war and torture, having to take to attempt to migrate and seek asylum on flimsy boats on dangerous seas. It doesn't even have to be explicit, the footage of a man alone out in the middle of an immense sea is powerful enough, particularly when it is projected on top of the story of what happened to the crew of the Medusa some 200 years previously.

But of course, nothing is that simple with Castellucci. You might wonder why Death wears a yellow waterproof jacket and why she operates a movie camera that is trains on the audience (projecting back an empty theatre towards the conclusion). Self referential elements, breaking down the barrier between reality and theatre, also appear in the form of the actual names of the chorus - seen bobbing in the background behind the sea, sometimes as dummies - being projected on the screen, with their date of birth and the date of their 'death' being the 23 March 2018 (the date of the recording of this performance at the Dutch National Opera). Géricault's painting is also referenced in reverse as a geometric framing, while other unusual technological objects, neon poles and circles (see Moses und Aron again) descend from above.

Whatever it all means, it does nonetheless convey in a very abstract fashion the experience of people and reality being pushed to its limits, to minds becoming unhinged, of a world literally turning upside down. Visually striking, very much unconventional and avant-garde in its theatrical presentation with everything appearing immersed in the sea, when combined with Henze's relentless flow, its the rises and falls into violent outbursts meticulously controlled by Ingo Metzmacher, the hypnotic siren-call of the chorus proves irresistible, drawing crew and audience alike into its thrall. Lenneke Ruiten's extraordinary performance singing Death makes the certain end feel just as inescapable, which indeed, despite his rescue is also the fate of Bo Skovhus's determined Jean-Charles. It looks like Mamadon Ndiaye at least makes it out of the water, but you are left in no uncertain terms with as much an indication as it is possible to put on a stage of what must be endured every day for the thousands who take to the seas to endure similar horrors to the crew of the raft of the Medusa.

Links: DNO, ARTE Concert, YouTube