An Ancient City Revisited

Jesse Simon
martes, 2 de abril de 2019
Widmann: Babylon (2018) © Arno Declair, 2019 Widmann: Babylon (2018) © Arno Declair, 2019
Berlin, sábado, 9 de marzo de 2019. Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Babylon (Revised Version, 2018). Music by Jörg Widmann, Text by Peter Sloterdijk. Andreas Kriegenburg, director. Susanne Elmark (Inanna), Mojca Erdmann (The Soul), Charles Workman (Tammu), John Tomlinson (Priest-King), Otto Katzameier (Death), Marina Prudenskaya (Euphrates), Andrew Watts (Scorpion Man), Florian Hoffmann (Priest), and Felix von Manteuffel (Ezekiel). Staatsopernchor and Staatskapelle Berlin. Christopher Ward, conductor

Jörg Widmann’s Babylon is a musically ambitious, intellectually demanding investigation into the role of ritual, religion and myth in a nominally ancient society that nonetheless has parallels with our own. It had its première in 2012 in Munich, but for its first performances at the Staatsoper Berlin, it appeared in a newly revised version and with a completely new staging by Andreas Kriegenburg. If Peter Sloterdijk’s ideologically loaded, defiantly undramatic libretto may ultimately preclude any degree of popular success, it is nonetheless a fascinating work of modern opera that will reward those with the patience to unravel its thematic complexities.

The libretto is far more successful as a collection of intriguing ideas than a work of narrative drama. There is a story of sorts: Tammu, a Jew living in Babylon who has become a confidante of the king, falls in love with Inanna, a priestess in the temple of love. After a flood devastates the city, Tammu is sacrificed to ward off future destruction and the distraught Inanna ventures into the underworld to bring him back. The love story was obviously of less interest to Mr Sloterdijk than the evocation of two intertwined societies – the polytheistic Babylonians and the monotheistic Jews – moving from superstition to enlightenment, and the brief narrative fragments were often submerged in longer, static scenes that attempted to construct a theoretical framework for the opera’s argument.

If Mr Widmann’s score was conspicuously modern in its approach to harmony and texture, the structure and pacing of the action recalled nothing so much as baroque opera. The narrative played out in brief, condensed scenes sandwiched between much longer thematic set-pieces. Some of those scenes had a captivating quality that required no narrative frame: the long monologue delivered by a personification of the Euphrates – who had just flooded and destroyed the city – would have been a high point in any opera. Other scenes simply went on too long: the personification of the soul, and the biblical exegesis of the prophet Ezekiel were undoubtedly essential to the formal structure of the text, but nowhere near riveting enough to stand on their own; Inanna’s journey to the underworld to undo the death of her lover could have been half as long with no adverse effects. Baroque opera got away with favouring poetry over narrative because it was understood that the audience would already be familiar with the source material, but Mr Sloterdijk’s free assemblage of figures from Babylonian mythology and biblical lore was entirely his own, and anyone who had not done their homework might have found it all somewhat bewildering. 

The libretto’s potential for obscurity was not alleviated by Andreas Kriegenburg’s visually striking but frequently chaotic staging. Mr Kriegenburg’s decision to eschew obvious Babylonian trappings (apart from some barely visible cuneiform inscriptions and a nod to the Ishtar gate) in favour of what appeared to be a segment of a bombed-out high rise – the set, by Harald Thor, scrolled up and down on the Staatsoper’s impressively deep hydraulic stage – certainly gave the production a modern flavour: this Babylon could have been any number of shell-damaged middle eastern cities. The oddly shaped spaces created by the building’s concrete forms were almost always occupied, either by the writhing bodies of Inanna’s temple, the chorus of flood victims or the scripture-reading Jewish exiles, and the constant background action created an undeniable visual energy. Yet the staging often alluded to the events of the libretto rather than giving them decisive form, which could make the already indifferent narrative somewhat difficult to follow. There were also a handful of moments where Mr Kriegenburg leaned a bit too heavily on the traditional opposition of pious exiles and hedonistic Babylonians – familiar from nearly every other story about Babylon – which seemed somewhat at odds with the careful balance Mr Sloterdijk was trying to achieve. 

Musically the opera was rarely less than fascinating. Mr Widmann often conveys the sense of a musical omnivore who has consumed and internalised the major developments of the past three centuries and can deploy an astounding variety of styles and genres at will. Yet his artistry is more than mere pastiche, and he seems unwilling to use stylistic references purely for their own sake. The score of Babylon has moments that flirt with obviousness: the near-tonality of the mighty opening chorus, the quasi-verismo love duet between Inanna and Tammu, and the carnival-burlesque of the New Year celebration all suggested a more traditional corpus of operatic source material. But Mr Widmann refused to play them straight, adding unexpected harmonic touches or ostentatious orchestral textures that threw everything slightly off balance. His ability to subvert and damage even the simplest musical ideas resulted in a teasingly elusive score, in which seemingly accessible moments began to change shape before they could be fully grasped.

Nor was Mr Widmann content to remain within even the vastly expanded bounds of the twenty-first century orchestra. Babylon featured, among other curiosities, a brief appearance by a group of shofar players and an unexpectedly placed electro-acoustic sound collage. It would be easy to dismiss such flourishes as the work of a dilettante, but Mr Widmann wields his extended arsenal of effects and ideas with such ease that even the gimmickiest additions rarely seemed forced. There were, to be sure, some overwrought moments, and a handful of sections that moved the action forward with only minimal engagement, but such moments were balanced by passages that achieved striking levels of sustained intensity.

Mr Widmann’s complex vocal writing received generally strong performances from an excellent cast. The polar soprano roles of Inanna and the Soul demand a nearly identical facility with the highest passages and, of the two, Susanne Elmark’s Inanna was perhaps the more obviously impressive. Her first scene involved elegant lower-range phrases punctuated by sudden leaps to very high notes, but even the most emphatic transitions were executed with precision and avoided any hints of shrillness at the top; and if Inanna’s descent to the underworld wasn’t wholly successful as a dramatic scene, Ms Elmark’s impassioned, defiant singing was among the finest of the evening. If Mojca Erdmann’s Soul sounded a touch more restrained, the purity and power of her voice had no problem rising about the final moments of the opening chorus, and her opening monologue, lamenting the loss of Tammu to the Babylonians, had a compelling intensity. Yet perhaps the opera’s most captivating scene belonged to Marina Prudenskaya, whose monologue with chorus as the river Euphrates was arguably the opera’s defining moment. 

Charles Workman delivered Tammu with a clear-toned innocence that worked with the music, but couldn’t quite mask the libretto’s indifference to the character; John Tomlinson applied his considerable charisma to the Priest King, even if the semi-spoken nature of some of his scenes didn’t take full advantage of his impressive low-end power; and Andrew Watts book-ended the evening with two nicely-crafted scenes as the Scorpion Man. The evening’s strangest performance came from Otto Katzameier who howled, chomped and falsettoed through his appearance as Death. His commitment was evident, and one cannot doubt that he realised Mr Widmann’s intentions flawlessly, but the conception of the character was distractingly over-the-top.

Christopher Ward provided the evening with focused, balanced direction, making sense of the score’s metallic textures, interjections of arrhythmic percussion and myriad musical references without depriving the most grandly-scaled scenes of their force. The choir, too, were on fine form, bringing a vast, weighty sound to key moments. If Mr Widmann intended the opening chorus and the surprisingly optimistic conclusion to sound unwieldy and slightly chaotic, the massed forces of the orchestra and choir gave them an accessible immediacy. Indeed, the musical clarity of Babylon’s most ambitious moments went some distance to tempering the story’s dramatic imbalances. If Mr Sloterdijk’s libretto was unwilling to let plot or character get in the way of large themes, Mr Widmann’s flirtations with traditional operatic pleasures and his ability to construct scenes on an epic scale may prove enough to draw audiences into the opera’s intellectual world. Babylon has traditionally been a world of spectacle, and the opera, for all its attempts at revisionism, was not without its own sense of the spectacular.

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