Thursday 10 June 2021

Srnka - Singularity (Munich, 2021)

Miroslav Srnka - Singularity

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2021

Patrick Hahn, Nicolas Brieger, Eliza Boom, Juliana Zara, Daria Proszek, Yajie Zhang, George Vîrban, Andres Agudelo, Andrew Hamilton, Theodore Platt 

Bayerische Staatsoper TV - 7 June 2021

Aside from the difficulties of composing and staging an opera under current lockdown restrictions, another challenge that must face every new composer or artist is to create something new that stands up against the great artistic achievements of the past. Composing for a world premiere at the historic Cuvilliés-Theater in Munich, which opened in 1753 with Catone in Utica by Giovanni Battista Ferrandini and saw the premiere of Mozart's Idomeneo in 1781, you wonder whether Miroslav Srnka felt any additional pressure to live up to the greats. Despite the popular image of Mozart as composer who never suffered from self-doubt, I expect that even he must have had the same insecurities following in the footsteps of the greats before him, so the pressures are probably the same as they ever were.

What Mozart would also have recognised however is that one of the real challenges for any artist creating something new is that there is a need to break from the past and create something meaningful and relevant that reflects and speaks the language of our own times. While other artforms and audiences may appear to be more amenable to change and progress and opera perhaps slower to accept modern ideas and technology, in truth opera is one of the most innovative of art forms, constantly evolving in how it incorporates disciplines and brings new advances in them together under one roof. At the very least - if maybe not much else - we can say that Mirsolaw Snrka's Singularly - A Space Opera for Young Voices - is not lacking ambition in that regard.

Whether the work has anything important to say, whether it makes any real advances in the world of music and opera, or even whether it is likely to be remembered and revived remains to be seen, but it doesn't seem that likely. It's perhaps mired too much in the contemporary language and technology of the day to be more than a curious remnant of a challenging period not just for opera composers, but for any artist. Essentially of course, as a science-fiction opera its intention is to touch on more universal issues, and Tom Holloway's libretto does manage to relate to the dangers of alienation brought on by the growing human reliance on and relationship to technology. 

Having acknowledged that it does tackle a relevant universal subject, it has to be said that Singularity doesn't really dig down too deep into that theme. The advances in technology and social media that allow everyone (including opera bloggers) to have a voice and be more likely to use it to criticise than praise is however perhaps one of the contemporary issues that Singularity takes in along the way. There is undoubtedly a fear that a reliance on technology, games and social media - particularly in a time of enforced social distancing - leads not just to a sense of dumbing down, but puts ever greater distance between us and our true empathic selves. It's not a massive concept and I'm sure there are more pressing issues to consider for the futures of the younger generation, but it's certainly something worth discussing.

The problem however with highlighting the idea of dumbing down technology being dangerous to our psychological and intellectual make-up is that the charge could also be leveled against the way that such work lays out that idea. We shouldn't confuse the medium with the message or necessarily see something that challenges the superficial appearing itself to be superficial, but it's by no means clear that Tom Holloway's libretto avoids that pitfall. It certainly doesn't help and it's not particularly clever that the opening lines of the opera strive to show their engagement with contemporary language and modern issues by reeling off a string of expletives.

Rather, the language provides a ready-made criticism for the work, or at least for those less likely to look favourably on modern opera and contemporary music. "This is fucking shit, this sucks balls, [vomit green stuff]" - Singularity at least surely distinguishing itself by being the first opera with a libretto that employs emojis in the text - is the limited means of expression used by a young man so addicted to computer games that he is no longer able to appreciate the human attraction of his neglected girlfriend. He's not a particularly promising subject target for an opera to tackle, but it's undoubtedly a true reflection of where many young people are and it's something that could potentially have more serious consequences down the line.

And in a science-fiction work, the idea is really to explore where this is indeed likely to lead further down the line. For some reason, not entirely explained, the young man finds himself sucked down a vortex into a strange alien space environment that looks like the inside of a block of cheese, where he finds two other young people also with sociability problems. One of them is a young man who has never known the love of a woman who has a canary for a comfort zone, a substitute for a mummy who didn't love him. The other is a young woman who, I don't really know (or care to be honest), seems to also have issues of intimacy.

The three remain in this huis clos situation to work though their problems with the help of an out-of-date computer, Screeny. They are there for a long, long time, for upwards of 50 years - which seems to be about right as the amount of time it will take for this generation to be cured of the problems brought about by over-reliance on technology, and - to judge by the dialogue and inadequate attempts at communication that relies heavily on emojis - their inability to express their feelings, much less get in touch with them.

So it's not entirely irrelevant then, but whether you take to the opera's ideas and characters will depend on how well the creators put them across, and Singularity is not an easy opera to engage with. Certainly the libretto doesn't provide any real depth of insight or poetry, but that's inevitable when dealing with characters who talk in the common parlance of the day about losers getting triggered, getting cancelled and unfriended, people who find any sentence longer that 5 words a case of TL:DR, who litter their communication with smiley face, blowing a kiss and vomit green stuff emojis (all replicated in the subtitles).

The libretto attempts to get around this to some extent by splitting each of the characters into two as Analogue and Digital selves, all of them singing roles. The digital self is hard to separate from the analogue person - since in this near future world, each person has implants to allow instant messaging (which some find convenient to turn off when they don't want to hear) - and they have almost equal roles in the opera. Although the digital selves are dressed like shadows, it's not always easy to know who is singing what and why, but it's a meaningful distinction and connection to make.

Raimund Bauer's set design for Nicolas Brieger's production is effective in its use of digital effects to achieve much in a relatively simple stage design. Kaleidoscopic projections present the room where most of the opera takes place as a futuristic science-fiction space world with holes of black matter. Whether it relates to any psychological state of the characters is anyone's guess, but it keeps the visual interest sustained at least. Engaging with the characters or caring about their predicament is much harder, and the libretto doesn't really find a way of making them sympathetic. Nor unfortunately does the singing which, despite the quality of the performers, is often required to be delivered in English as barked speech.  

Specifically subtitled as a Space Opera for Young Voices, it is the voices that dominate over the musical content. Whether through intent or through necessity because of the Covid pandemic, this is a considerably reduced orchestration from Srnka's previous opera for Munich (South Pole, 2016) - from snow storm to snow flake - also written in collaboration with librettist Holloway. Klangforum Wien however are skilled practitioners of new music and unconventional instrumentation and under conductor Patrick Hahn they deliver the impact of the bursts of analogue and digital worlds in conflict, more in the realm of sound art than conventional music. Whether you judge Singularity to have succeeded in its modest ambitions, at the very least it doesn't fall into the trap of the well-meaning but patronising moralising and platitudes that can blight opera for young people. That's something, but I'm not sure the opera entirely avoids the pitfall of dealing with superficial characters or handle the contemporary issues of technology in our lives with any originality or insight.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper TV, Bayerische Staatsoper

Friday 4 June 2021

Reimann - Lear (Munich, 2021)

Aribert Reimann - Lear

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2021

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Christoph Marthaler, Christian Gerhaher, Angela Denoke, Ausrine Stundyte, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Georg Nigl, Andrew Watts, Matthias Klink, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Ivan Ludlow, Jamez McCorkle, Brenden Gunnell, Graham Valentine, Dean Power, Marc Bodnar

Bayerische Staatsoper TV - 30 May 2021

There aren't many late 20th century operas that have made such an impact as Aribert Reimann's Lear, a modern opera that has had around 30 productions since its creation in the 1978. And impact is an appropriate and apposite word to describe this extraordinary and still most challenging of operas, a work that is nothing less than an assault on the senses. Some might find that true of most modern opera, but when it comes to adapting this darkest and most violent of Shakespeare's plays - one that Verdi has ambitions to write but never achieved - it's an opera should shake you to the core. Reimann's Lear is indeed - in the best possible meaning of the term - an assault on the senses.

What is also extraordinary about the opera is how much it remains close to the original in text, tone and theme, a challenging work with a diverse cast of characters each with their own motives, character and personality. It retains as much as possible of the two almost distinct story-lines, Lear and his daughters on one hand Gloucester and his sons on the other, each one informing and enhancing the themes of the other. It's all there in the opera, right down to all the notable lines straight out of the play and, in this concentrated form, you'd be hard pressed to think of anything significant that has been cut.

What is even more extraordinary is how Reimann's music enhances the dramatic intensity of the original. In the play, much depends on a director's or actor's interpretation on how the characters come to life, how they interact, what they generate between them. Reimann is wholly the director here and scores those personalities even more intensely into the vocal lines. Few characters are more formidable in drama than Regan and Goneril, and in Reimann's version they are even more stridently terrifying creations, made all the more so by the layering of vocal lines in a way that cannot be done in the theatre, doubling the voices and thereby concentrating and intensifying the drama.

Given all that, Shakespeare and Reimann combined on a work as dark, dramatic and powerful as Lear, is it any wonder that director Christoph Marthaler decides that it needs no further dramatic intervention from him. Although that does seem to be a guiding principle for this director, preferring to offer a contrasting new element on top of the work rather than seek to provide mere dramatic illustration, he's not wrong with adopting that approach in this work. Whether what he brings to it has any merit or indeed interest is a matter of taste and interpretation, but you would hope at least that it doesn't get in the way of the inherent force of the work.

Some might think however that he does fail to adequately present the work on the stage, but at the very least one thing you could count on with Marthaler is that it would not be like any other production and be completely unpredictable, if not even barely comprehensible. He doesn't disappoint on that front. If you can reduce the concept down to a brief description, Anna Viebrock’s stage set is based on the Museum of Natural History in Basel, and Lear is a collector of insects who likes to preserve the past, viewing his own subjects and family as if they were exhibits pinned to a board.

Hence at the start of the Bayerische Staatsoper's 2021 production - with a live audience back after the most recent Covid-19 lockdown - we see a museum guide or scientist showing a small group of visitors the exhibits of the Lear family all mounted in glass display cases in a room of the museum. Other eccentric ways of complementing the drama follow, but hardly bear up to any real scrutiny or commentary. In the first half, Goneril and Regan's dismissal of Lear and his retinue is done by opening boxes of perfume and spraying it in their direction, while in the second half the cast are largely confined within transport cases and cupboards.

If Marthaler doesn't directly engage with the opera however, Reimann's score is certainly capable of presenting the subject on its own terms. It's the sound of a world descending into disorder and madness. Not just one old man's personal decline but all the beliefs, certainties and securities that we have held - even the order of tonality - being cast aside and utterly destroyed in halftones, quartertones and a barrage of thunderous percussion. It's literally the end of the world as we know it; the destruction of hope, of faith in humanity, the sound of despair and regret at the realisation of the reality, the truth about the nature of people revealed, the horror that people can inflict on one another and the depths to which they will stoop out of greed and self interest. It's the nature of the modern world laid bare.

Sadly there is little evidence of that in Marthaler's production, which actually seems to go out of its way to lessen the impact. Fair enough, you might not need to see the gory detail of Gloucester's bloody eye sockets, but putting to glass spheres onto Georg Nigl's eyes does not provoke the essential visceral response that the situation - and Reimann's scoring of it - uses to demonstrate the horrors that man (and woman) are capable of inflicting on one another. There might not be a whole lot Marthaler has to say about Lear, and there may indeed not be a whole lot more that anyone can add that isn't already there to its fullest in Shakespeare and Reimann, but interpretation is of course still an essential part of any opera performance and I was particularly looking forward to hearing the fine cast assembled for this production.

The singing at least tries its best to deliver the magnificent dark poetry of the text and the music that maximises its impact. Christian Gerhaher as Lear and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Cordelia are both excellent, doing their best to overcome the largely neutral inexpressive stage direction. Gerhaher manages to be typically lyrical while still describing the horror of his experience, but is still somewhat held back by the direction. Rather more successful since they have great roles to sing no matter what, Ausrine Stundyte is typically impressive as Regan and Angela Denoke suitably dramatic as Goneril, her unsteady and erratic pitch actually suiting Reimann's slides into horrific dissonance. Matthias Klink is outstanding as Edgar/Poor Tom.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper TV