Alemania

Snowbound

Jesse Simon
martes, 29 de enero de 2019
Guth: Violetter Schnee © Monika Rittershaus, 2019 Guth: Violetter Schnee © Monika Rittershaus, 2019
Berlin, domingo, 13 de enero de 2019. Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Violetter Schnee. Music by Beat Furrer. Libretto by Händl Klaus from an original idea by Vladimir Sorokin. Claus Guth, director. Anna Prohaska (Silvia), Elsa Dreisig (Natascha), Gyula Orendt (Jan), Georg Nigl (Peter), Otto Katzameier (Jacques) and Martina Gedeck (Tanja). Vocalconsort Berlin. Staatskapelle Berlin. Matthias Pintscher, conductor
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The spectre of the twentieth century loomed large over Violetter Schnee, Beat Furrer’s newest opera, which recently had its long-awaited world première at the Staatsoper Berlin. The libretto, written by Händl Klaus from an original idea by Vladimir Sorokin, seemed closely bound to the overriding preoccupations of post-war theatre: the inability of language to express meaning, the disintegration of social order in the face of adversity, and the idea that human existence is a confined space from which there is no escape. Mr Furrer’s frequently magnificent score was equally steeped in the textural and harmonic language of the same era. Yet if the opera was indebted to the foundational themes and approaches of the previous century, it seemed less a throwback than a careful distillation. While Claus Guth’s attractively dark production was occasionally too keen to drag the story in unexpected directions, Violetter Schnee remained a claustrophobic, mesmerizingly intense work of modern theatre.

The opera concerned a group of five individuals trapped in a never-ending snowstorm, apparently part of some larger, unspecified catastrophe: in the first scene they had already burned most of their furniture and appeared to be on the last of their food. The insistent blankness had rendered them unable to speak in complete sentences, but this did not prevent them from pursuing their earthly concerns: one character withdrew into haunted memories of his dead wife; two others made plans to tell their respective partners about their long-standing affair; a sixth character, perhaps nothing more than an apparition, appeared among them. In the final moments the sun returned to melt the snow, but it remained unclear whether this spelled an end for the characters, a new beginning, or merely a continuation.

Vladimir Sorokin’s apocalyptic scenario was apparently reworked extensively by Händl Klaus, whose scenes contained only elliptical fragments of character and incident, and whose dialogue had the staccato, syllabic quality of words spoken while shivering. It was an odd but ultimately appropriate match for the gliding orchestral clouds of Mr Furrer’s quietly prismatic score. While the prologue began with an excitable, highly rhythmic collision of sliding brass clusters, pulsating strings and shards of mallet percussion, it soon calmed to more understated, if no less focussed, modes of sonic agitation. The downward cascade of the intermezzo between the prologue and the first episode suggested less a constant snowfall than the sensation of all light being drawn into an immense void; and in the most arresting passages of the second episode, Mr Furrer created unbearable tension using only a static cluster of high violins and a few offstage voices. His use of the choir as essentially another section of the orchestra – they remained offstage for the duration of the opera and sang Latin passages from Lucretius’ De rerum natura that served more a textural than dramatic purpose – was one of the score’s most distinctive features. The final quarter-hour achieved remarkable levels of ominous intensity. 

Claus Guth’s staging was unsurprisingly beautiful in conception and execution, but the moments where it opened up the visual possibilities implicit in the libretto were occasionally clouded by ideas that worked against the existential desolation of the story. The prologue took place in the Bruegel room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum – whose magnificent Bruegel exhibition ended coincidentally on the very day of this performance – with Tanja describing ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ in the halting, trancelike voice of a medium receiving an image of the painting from beyond. From there the action moved to a small but tasteful modern apartment located at the bottom of what appeared to be a subterranean bunker complex. At various points the characters would venture ‘upstairs’ into a ruined urban streetscape illuminated by a streetlight, littered with detritus, and plagued by constant snowfall. Within this vision of a destroyed world, various figures from Bruegel’s painting – the hunters with their spears and several old women with bundles of sticks – moved back and forth in slow motion. 

Tarkovsky’s Solaris, another tale of characters unravelling in the face of an oppressive nothingness, was an acknowledged reference-point, both in its treatment of the apparition who reminds one of the characters of his dead wife, and in its fixation on Bruegel. Yet where Tarkovsky used lingering close-ups from ‘Hunters’ (memorably assisted by one of Bach’s Chorale Preludes) to remind his marooned characters of a world to which they were no longer connected, Mr Guth’s attempts to bring Bruegel’s panel to life served mostly to divide our attention from the plight of the characters and dilute the ascetic purity of their isolation. The staging’s visual flourishes – not merely the scenes with the Hunters, but the movement of the characters through the multi-levelled hydraulically-powered set – were never less than elegant, yet the continuous action also somewhat undermined the dramatic potential of the opera’s hermetic setting. Perhaps nearly two hours of six characters on a completely white stage would have been too overwhelming, but when the characters entered a state of terminal abstraction in the magnificent final scene we were left with only a vague sense of what we had lost. 

The small ensemble of five singers and one actress brought the opera’s highly fragmented, often overlapping dialogue to crisp, vigorous life. As the isolated, introspective Jacques, Otto Katzameier’s haunted, resonant bass-baritone provided a sliding foundation to the ensemble scenes and was responsible for the evening’s most captivating solo passages: in his meditations on nothingness one could feel the weight and mystery of the snowy void that the other characters tried hard to ignore. Anna Prohaska’s luminous tone and agile delivery brought a rare measure of human compassion to the jagged despair of Silvia. Actress Martina Gedeck delivered Tanja’s entranced descriptions with forceful immediacy, while keeping the nature of her character suitably elusive.

Vocalconsort Berlin provided the evening with an extraordinary offstage vocal ensemble even if their position in the wings did not always result in ideal clarity; their ability to blend with and enliven Mr Furrer’s sonic landscapes nonetheless resulted in many of the evening’s most exciting moments. Conductor Matthias Pintscher maintained heightened levels of intensity for the length of the opera as he led the Staatskapelle on a taut journey through the score’s dynamic and textural episodes. If Mr Guth’s ambitious staging had moments that felt inconclusive, the efforts of Mr Pintscher, the singers, the choir and the orchestra suggested that the desolate world conjured by Mr Furrer in Violetter Schnee has sufficient power to repay further visits.

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