Monday 21 April 2008

Schoenberg, 'Moderne Menschen' triple-bill, Leipzig Opera, 20 April 2008

Oper Leipzig

Moderne Menschen: Eine Schönberg-Trilogie

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Axel Kober (conductor)

The musical world’s debt to Leipzig Opera cannot be gainsaid. Even Erwartung is hardly over-exposed, whilst stagings of Die glückliche Hand and Von heute auf morgen are rarer than gold-dust. Moreover, to perform all three of Schoenberg’s one-act operas was not merely a magnificent declaration of intent; it also paid off in artistic terms. Though I might entertain reservations concerning certain aspects of the staging, these should not detract from the enterprise itself, which also included a Schoenberg exhibition at the opera house. Each of the operas was presented separately, with a different cast and production team. Conductor Axel Kober and the fearless Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra were common to all three. One can debate about whether the works might have benefited from a common approach; there are valid arguments on either side. Given that they were performed under the single heading, Modern Menschen (‘Modern People’), deriving from the final line of Von heute auf morgen, there would have been something to be said for a more single-minded treatment, but let us not worry too much on that score. I am delighted to see that Leipzig Opera’s dedication to the cause will continue; next season, the trilogy will be revived as part of the house’s permanent repertoire. Many more celebrated companies should be put to shame.

Von heute auf morgen

Der Mann – Wolfgang Newerla
Die Frau – Hendrikje Wangemann
Sänger – Timothy Fallon
Die Freundin – Susanna Anderson

Das Kind – Johannes Gosch, Jonathan Lauch, Maximilian Friedrich, Ruben Bestfleisch, Johannes Ruß, Ilkja Kafanke, Andre Kafanke, Johannes Gramsee, Thomas Beck, Patrick Koglin
Der Gasmann – Björn Bachmann, Roman Schulze, Christoph Schubert

Immo Karaman (director)
Fabian Posca (co-director)
Kaspar Zwimpfer (designs)
Marie-Louise Walek (costumes)

Von heute auf morgen is, by any standards, an historically important work: the first twelve-note opera. Yet how often does one have the opportunity to hear it, let alone to see it staged? It is more than historically important, too, a far better work than many that refuse to leave our stages. One may smile at Schoenberg’s desire, influenced by the success of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, to write a popular ‘hit’, but as Hanns Eisler remarked, the subject matter and the words evoke ‘a mundane operetta’. The music, however, as Eisler went on to say, is, of the future, in spite of Schoenberg’s intentions, but this tension rendered the apparent banality of the text ambiguous and ultimately presented ‘a kind of apocalypse on a family scale’. One of the work’s most persuasive interpreters, Michael Gielen, has rightly referred, again suggesting that this was far from Schoenberg’s intention, to the ‘horror music’ of the ‘subconscious of the bourgeoisie’.

This came to the fore, though not didactically so, in Oper Leipzig’s production. The banality of bourgeois existence was nicely portrayed on stage, in what was a vaguely updated setting. A nice touch was the initial conveyor-belt of household goods: important to this mode of existence in one sense, yet utterly unimportant and indeed ‘fashionable’ in another. For Schoenberg’s intentional ire is directed against the vapidity of fashion, a just object of anyone’s ire. And so there was no attempt to dignify the Friend and the Singer. Their fashionable contempt for ‘old-fashioned’ existence was worse than the object of their contempt.

All four of the singers impressed in their roles, whose vocal difficulties are of course considerable. Such difficulties are perhaps intensified by the need to continue in ‘light’ vein. The principal couple, played by Wolfgang Newerla and Hendrikje Wangemann, bear the brunt of this pressure. That they never seemed to tire and remained impeccably in character, albeit changing character, throughout is a tribute to their artistry. Susanna Anderson and Timothy Fallon were convincing siren voices for the fashion, which changes ‘between today and tomorrow’, although I wondered whether the latter might have been a little more alluring and/or heroic. The Child underwent various incarnations, from small to strapping. (I am not quite sure why.) Each of his incarnations handled his notated rhythms well. The three – again, I do not know why – images of the gasman had little to do other than display their chiselled physiques as bait for the unhappy Woman, but they could hardly be faulted in that respect.

The orchestra was excellent throughout and was securely led by Axel Kober. The gleaming Bauhaus-like constructivism of Schoenberg’s score is not generous to second-rate performance, let alone worse, but there was no chance of that here. There was a fine sense of continuity, and one felt duly overwhelmed – and in definite need of a drink – by the canonical ‘horror’ quartet in which the opera culminates.

Die glückliche Hand

Der Mann – Matteo de Monti

Members of the Leipzig Opera Chorus
Stefan Biz (chorus master)

Eine Frau – Meylem González
Ein Herr – Roman Schulze

Carlos Wagner (director)
Daphne Kitschen (designs, costumes)
Tom Baert (choreographer)

Die glückliche Hand is anything but ‘light’, even in the somewhat ironic sense one must adopt when speaking of Schoenberg. It is, however, I think, ultimately a more ingratiating work, an Expressionist masterpiece of the highest order. Schoenberg’s fanatically detailed instructions for staging, many concerned with an almost Scriabin-like music of colours, present a difficulty for any director. Carlos Wagner elected to ignore the colours, or rather to present many of them as words above the stage, although on stage he actually followed quite a few of Schoenberg’s directions. In the programme, he defended this course by speaking of creating a ‘world of symbols’ from his own subconscious, to respond to that of Schoenberg. I have no especial problem with this, but I wondered whether, in a work so rarely staged, it might have been worthwhile to present at least some of Schoenberg’s colours. As it was, we found ourselves on the moon, and with a football theme replacing the Schoenbergian jewellers’ workshop.

Matteo de Monti was a good, if not outstanding, ‘man’, as the only vocal soloist. There was nothing wrong with his portrayal, but it lacked the flawed artistic heroism that Schoenberg at least saw as so crucial. The six men and six women from the Leipzig Opera Chorus were superb, for which credit should also go to Stefan Biz. Positioned unseen behind the audience, there was a wonderful spatial effect, which offered an intriguing substitute for our colour deprivation. The orchestra sounded magnificent, revelling in the heights and depths of Schoenberg’s expressionism, once again securely guided – and rather more than merely guided – by Kober.

If I had doubts – though doubts rather than opposition – concerning the production, it should be added that Carlos Wagner’s Personenregie was faultless. One witnessed this as much in the non-singing ‘extras’ as the Man himself. Meylem González and Roman Schulze (previously a Gasman) proved themselves fine actors and commendably athletic too. Members of the Faculty of Sports Science at the University of Leipzig were able to display their footballing skills, joined by Schulze, who seemed just as much at home in this respect.


Die Frau – Deborah Polaski

Sandra Leopold (director)
Tom Musch (designs, costumes)

Erwartung also received a fine performance. Anything remotely acceptable in the role of the Woman will be a tour de force, and this was no exception. I did not feel that Deborah Polaski brought quite the knife-edge dramatic charisma to the role that I heard a few years ago from Inga Nielsen at Covent Garden, but this was also doubtless partly attributable to the differing concerns of the production. It would be unreasonable, to put it mildly, to expect pitch-perfection here, but I noted a number of slips. Balanced against that, Polaski was admirably secure of tone and certainly could act.

We appeared to be in some sort of studio confessional, the Woman of course having lost her lover. She appeared to be recording herself, for at least part of the time, although it was not clear why she was in the studio. Was she being held, on trial, mad, etc.? There is much that is unclear in Schoenberg’s original, and indeed that is much of the point, so we should not concern ourselves too much with precision. There was a creditable sense – shared between production and performance – of increasing madness and hopelessness. Once again, the orchestral contribution was first-class, as was Kober’s direction. That marvellous sense of athematic splintering and refraction was powerfully caught, but so was the underlying sense of direction through which one of Schoenberg’s most miraculous score continues to cohere, whilst breathing the air of all manner of other planets.

More controversial was the ending. Disrupting what Walter Benjamin would have called the ‘aura’ of the work, Sandra Leopold decided to have Polaski play back part of the recording she had made, which we heard – in recorded form. I thought that this worked rather well, and offered an interesting response – intentionally or otherwise – to the lack of finality in the score. (This is a lack of finality arising from the very nature of the very writing, so my words should not in any sense be considered as an adverse criticism.) Certainly, no one seemed to mind in Leipzig, although I can imagine that more conservatively-minded audiences might well do so. On the other hand, they would probably have stayed away in the first place from Schoenberg, even a century on.

I am not sure that I emerged from this trilogy any the wiser concerning the Child’s question at the end of Von heute auf Morgen – ‘Mama, what are modern people? – but perhaps that is the point. Maybe there is no single thread binding us together at all. Schoenberg would probably have dissented, but no more than Wagner was he always the surest guide to his own work. The crucial thing here is that Oper Leipzig gave us the rarest of opportunities to consider such questions.