Sunday 17 September 2023

Das Floß der Medusa, Komische Oper, 16 September 2023

Hangar 1, Tempelhof Airport

Images: Jaro Suffner

La Mort – Gloria Rehm
Jean-Charles – Günter Papendell
Charon – Idunnu Münch
Four Dead – Takshiro Namiki, Taiki Miyashita, Yauci Yanes Ortega, Matthias Spenke, Fermin Basterra
Thirteen Dying – Polly Ott, Agnes Dasch, Sarah Papodopoulo, Viola Weimker, Claudia Buhrmann, Orine Nosaki, Wiebke Kretzschmar, Martin Fehr, Christoph Eder, Hartmut Schröder, Martin Netter, Thomas Heiß, Werner Matusch
Fourteen Surviving – Angela Postweiler, Uta Krause, Veronika Burger, Claudia van Hasselt, Julia Hebecker, Ulrike Jahn, Hans-Dierer Gilleßen, Michael Schaffrath, Matthias Eger, Laurin Oppermann, Philipp Schreyer, Simon Berg, Enrico Wenzel, Frank Schwemmer

Tobias Kratzer (director)
Rainer Sellmaier (designs)
Marguerite Donlon (choreography)
Julia Jordà Stoppelhaar (dramaturgy)
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Sound design – Holger Schwark

Choir Soloists of the Komische Oper (director: David Cavelius)
Movement Choir and Children’s Extras of the Komische Oper
Vocalconsort Berlin
Staats- und Domchor Berlin (director: Kai-Uew Jirka)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Titus Engel (conductor)

Henze’s Raft of the Medusa may lay claim to the most celebrated non-premiere in musical history. In his autobiography, Bohemian Fifths (one of the most beautifully readable and enjoyable of composer autobiographies), Henze tells of how a media campaign against him had been stepped up during rehearsals, its authors ‘a ghost writer … also active as a composer … and a Hamburg-based journalist of ill-repute,’ somehow pillorying the oratorio about to be given its first performance without having seen or heard a note of it. It was neither the first nor the last time that his enemies claimed that the desire of ‘someone who was not hard up but who had a roof over his head and contracts with an appreciative Establishment … to become a spokesman for minorities, for the underprivileged and for opponents of the system’ must be bogus. Luigi Nono and Peter Weiss wrote letters on Henze’s behalf; Theodor Adorno nearly did, then (according to Henze) backed out on learning of such communist involvement. At any rate, a shot across the bows, at least in retrospect, had been fired when, in an interview with two journalists, eight days beforehand, they asked the composer what he would do in the case of ‘unpleasant scenes’. Maybe they knew; maybe they did not. 

At any rate, something already eerily amiss backstage, the chaos initiated when someone unfurled a (small) red flag on stage, and Henze quite reasonably declined a functionary’s demand that he personally take it down – ‘I was there to conduct, not to keep the place clean’ – led first of all to withdrawal of the RIAS Chamber Choir, who had joined from West Berlin to add to the numbers. They absurdly chanted ‘in unison: “Get rid of the flag! Get rid of the flag!”,’ notwithstanding the fact that the very same flag flew from the Hamburg and Schöneberg Town Halls at that time. Riot police intervened, ‘ready for action with their clubs and shields’. The orchestra had already left. ‘There was total confusion, brute force was used, and a number of arrests were made. Ernst Schnabel,’ writer of the oratorio’s text, ‘may have been a former controller of North German Radio, but that did not stop him from being thrown through a plate-glass door by a representative of the forces of law and order and from being briefly locked up in a cell for opposing the state’s authorities.’ Someone, as Henze discovered only later, had attached a poster to his desk, with the word ‘Revolutionary’, followed by a question mark. 

It was a traumatic event for Henze, however fun or glamorous it may sound to us with distance. He, rather than the disruptors, found himself the target of a boycott from German musical institutions as a result. It has long seemed to me it would make a splendid metatheatrical setting for a staging of the work (be it noted, if only in parenthesis, that it was never intended to be staged). Yet, on reflection, and in light of what was in many ways, doubtless near-necessarily yet also wisely, quite a straightforward staging by Tobias Kratzer, perhaps that is the last thing The Raft of the Medusa actually needs: a further overshadowing by trumped-up debates and, let us not forget, state violence. Perhaps, actually, what it needs is the ability to speak, however clichéd the expression, ‘for itself’, in order to move and indeed to engage a new generation of listeners, many of us, me included, being afforded the opportunity to hear it live for the first time. There is probably, truth be told, room for both, though what do I know? I am no director. What I can say is that this Komische Oper premiere was, both intrinsically and judging by the audience reaction, a great success, indeed handsome recompense for that West German sabotage at the end of the fateful year of 1968.


We were not, however at the Komische Oper’s usual base. We were in Hangar 1 of Tempelhof Airport, a spectacular (and history-ridden) venue in what was and, in many ways still is, the West. Whilst long-awaited renovation and expansion work, to last several years, proceeds at the house on Behrenstraße, the company intends to deepen contacts with all parts of the city. This certainly made for an excellent start. The action took place, as it were, in the round—or rather the square, and a very large square at that, the audience surrounding a giant pool representing the sea in which the great tragedy of the French frigate Méduse took place, immortalised for so many of us in Théodore Géricault’s painting of two or three years later (an arresting tableau vivant on our arrival). Like the jungle, the forest, indeed any ‘natural’ setting, the sea in itself lies beyond human good and evil, but it all too often provides a setting for the latter to unfold. And so, after a little initial splashing around, already brought into relief by Charon’s dinghy narration, the tragedy unfolded, honouring where apt the intentions of its original creators, yet not bound by them where it no longer made sense. The chorus descended from all around us, indeed within us, ensuring our identification and involvement from the very outset. Death, La Mort, called from the side, and stepped in, luring many away. The dwindling band of survivors fought, reconciled, sank, swam, hallucinated, met again with reality, all clearly narrated and explained, always in danger—not only from La Mort, but from the heartless, stratified, capitalist society that had sent them to her and abandoned them. 

A shipwreck necessarily evokes further thoughts and images to us concerning our world’s (that of contemporary fascist regimes in Italy, Greece, and Britain in particular) inhuman rejection of refugees whose torment its economic and political systems have engendered. That is neither to be avoided nor regretted. Kratzer, rightly, I think, does not push that, for whilst it is part of the same struggle against the ruling class, it is not simply to be identified with it. This is also a more general struggle, indeed the general struggle of class society. Charon’s line remains with us: ‘Die Überlebenden aber kehrten in die Welt zurück: belehrt von Wirklichkeit, fiebernd, sie umzustürzen.’ The survivors returned to the world, instructed by reality, fevered, to overthrown it. They have not done so yet, of course, yet they were some of many to have planted the revolutionary seed reaction, its lies and distractions can never quite extinguish. And, at that point, the opening of the hangar doors, revealing a vehicle to take away the survivors, welcoming them (like Death, of course) though we know not to what, offered a glimpse of hope, whilst the idea that it was anything but continued to gnaw at us.

Charon (Idunnu Münch)

My sole reservation, and I should not wish to make much of this, is that such a setting perhaps tended to emphasise the ‘dramatic’ and particularly the scenic over the ‘musical’—not, of course, that the two (or three, or however many there are) should be dissociated in the first place. Singers were miked, which in the setting made good sense, I think; this was not an oratorio hall, nor was it pretending to be. Just occasionally, though, I wondered whether Henze’s orchestra, the excellent Komische Oper forces conducted with great wisdom and knowledge by Titus Engel, might have had a bit of a raw deal. Opera (even when it is not strictly so) is beset with such compromises, of course; indeed, it glories in them. Another performance would bring something different to the table and there are certainly no grounds for complaint. What I think I might have benefited from was a further opportunity to hear the performance once I had become more closely accustomed to its general outlines. 

For there was no doubting the command of detail, be it melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or timbral to be heard here, nor its inextricable combination both with the myriad of vocal lines and with the staged action. In Henze’s own words: ‘The polyphonic style of writing that I had acquired in such disparate works as Novae de infinito laudes, Der junge Lord and Die Bassariden now acquired a very real power and a realistic dimension: these were the voices of people thrown together, voices that rose to a scream or died away to a murmur and to silence.’ Crucially, moreover, Henze thought here – and wanted his performers to think – of instrumental lines as vocal lines too, ‘as the music of wordless Greek choruses’. If there is a whole world – this is most definitely a Mahlerian imagination at work – to be discovered in these particulars, there is a score and there are recordings for that. Moreover, the timpani call ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi-Minh’ prevails, equivocally no doubt, yet ultimately it does and must. (So it did in those ‘events’ of December 1968, when socialist students, protesting against the culture industry, showed explicit solidarity in the hall with Henze and vice versa, so one part of the ‘message’, if you like, did reach performance after all.) Schnabel’s use of German and Italian, the latter deepening the reach of Dante’s Inferno, also helped point to a world that one day might just shed itself of national boundaries—or perhaps not, given we hear it only from the dead. 

The choral model in Bach’s Passions is obvious enough and was acknowledged by Henze. At least as important, however, is how he and Schnabel, as well as their performers, travelled beyond that into more naturalistic realms, ‘including whimpering and screaming – even the wailing of Arab women is audible here’ (Henze). That plurality, very much part of his artistic and political vision, could at times only be hinted at, but out of those hints could, and did, grow something larger and stronger. We should not forget, though, that that, just as in Bach, could encompass something dark too. The monstrous description of those (as yet) still alive, the ‘Vielzuvielen’, (the far too many), becomes imprinted by repetition: not quite ritualistic, for Schnabel’s writing and Henze’s setting are more skilfully varied than that, but not entirely un-ritualistic either. This is, after all, an oratorio. They are individual human beings, all with a right to live, yet their number is a crucial key to Death’s victory, such as it is. All of this was finely balanced in a musicodramatic dialectic that was heard as well as seen, felt as well as thought. 

Whilst it would be invidious and, in many cases, simply not possible to single out particular vocal contributions, something should nonetheless be said of the central trio. Gloria Rehm welcomed the sailors in sweet obscenity to their destruction, their choral (and solo vocal) lines acknowledging her welcome, finding it all too easy to intertwine with it, to forge a new ensemble. Idunnu Münch’s Charon kept us (just about) sane, framing our understanding and response, a clear voice of goodness in the sense that we knew her truth to be ‘the truth’. (At least, the alternative did not bear thinking about it.) She mastered a very different kind of writing, taking us back not only in her name to the earliest of opera, negotiating passage between the living and the dead, and imparting a different kind of hope, in a documentary truth that permitted of aesthetic expression. (We may remember here that, as well as heading North German radio, Schnabel was a key figure in the making and development of German radio documentaries.)

La Mort (Gloria Rehm), Jean-Charles (Günter Papendell)

Jean-Charles is, to quote Kratzer in a programme interview, ‘the primus inter pares any of us could be, almost an Everyman in the Hofmannsthal sense. In this particular setting, it is that that enables – and did in Günter Papendell’s towering performance – identification, reading ourselves in, and thus exploration of some more particular qualities too. It is a tricky balance, yet Papendell brought it off, rising from the crowd and giving voice, without being a mere mouthpiece. There are musical as well as ‘dramatic’ means to this, of course, and he very much had the measure of Henze’s Pierrot-plus (that is, at times more experimental) writing here. Thoughts of Fischer-Dieskau, quite simply, never surfaced—alas, like so many others, lost in those treacherous waters, made all the more treacherous by man’s inhumanity to man. Yet each of those individual singers and actors, as well as the massed choral forces, brought a crucial individual presence to the performance without distracting: not the least of Krazter and his team’s achievement here. 

‘Ernst Schnabel and I,’ Henze wrote, ‘identified with the figures in Géricault’s painting, not only in order to be able to deal artistically with the subject matter of the piece and in order to give credible expression to our shared experience and fellow suffering but because we felt a sense of inner solidarity with these people and their struggle.’ Surely part of the task of such a performance is to enable the audience to do so too; in this, it seemed triumphantly to succeed. In Henze’s 1990 revision, there is even to be heard a final glimmer of hope (or might we, irrespective of intention, divine it in our administered society as reimposition of order?) An orchestral hymn is heard above, perhaps structuring, the ongoing drumbeat. It – the idea rather than the means – put me slightly in mind of Wagner’s revision of The Flying Dutchman in light of Tristan’s equivocal thoughts of redemption. Is that a good thing or not? The very question is doubtless silly, yet it reminds us that we soldier on, sometimes taking a step back, sometimes a step sideways, sometimes no step at all; and just occasionally, sharing a communal and, yes, political experience such as this, those doors flung open, Fidelio-like, we take a hesitant step forward. Or we imagine we do. 

The greater number of the Komische Oper’s activities this season will take place in the Schillertheater, known to many of us as temporary home to the Staatsoper during its lengthy renovations, but there will also be performances at the Konzerthaus, at Neukölln’s Kindl-Areal (formerly the Berliner Kindl brewer, now a centre for contemporary art), in a tent at the Rotes Rathaus, and at pop-up locations across the city. For the meantime, do what you can to get a ticket for this, and take that hesitant step forward into the freie Luft.