If you ever travel to Frankfurt on the Oder – close to the Polish border, not far from Berlin – you absolutely must visit St Mary's Church. Not only because you can see the original 117 stained-glass windows from the 14th century, but because the story told in these windows, in late medieval comic-style, depict the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, the life of Christ and the legend of the Antichrist, including his image, which looks just like Christ.

Thomas Lehman and Jonas Grundner-Culemann in Antikrist
© Thomas Aurin

Whether Rued Langgaard ever saw these masterpieces, we do not know. During his life (1893–1952) he travelled little outside his native Denmark. He was known as an organist and pianist and his 400+ compositions received little recognition during his lifetime (and not much more since his death). His only opera, Antikrist, was written in the early 1920s, soon revised for reasons of the censored libretto, which was also by him. In the end, the concert premiere took place posthumously, by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Michael Schønwandt in 1980, and it was only staged for the first time in 1999 at the Tyrolean Landestheater Innsbruck. Ersan Mondtag's new production for Deutsche Oper Berlin is only the fourth ever. In other words, it is a distinct rarity in the operatic landscape. 

It is certainly no coincidence that this opulent work deals with the apocalyptic conflict between God and Lucifer, especially composed so soon after the First World War, after which the world order was radically reformed, not only in Germany but throughout Europe, especially on a socio-cultural level. Langgaard is described as an “ecstatic outsider” by musicologist Bo Wallner, who places him in the late romantic and early avant-garde. The influences of Wagner and Schoenberg are unmistakable.

Thomas Lehman, Flurina Stucki and AJ Glueckert in Antikrist
© Thomas Aurin

The composer's libretto is just two pages long, consisting of a prologue and six scenes, performed here without a break. There is no plot in the conventional sense. In the prologue, Lucifer sends the Antichrist into a depraved and hedonistic society to work his mischief. God's Voice tolerates this to happen. In the final scene, God destroys the Antichrist, and thus good triumphs over evil. In the intervening scenes, the decadent society is shown following the Mouth speaking Great Words propagating a lifestyle characterised by superficiality, materialism and self-centredness. The character Sullenness spreads pessimism and bitterness. The Great Whore thinks that society should only give in to its basic urges. Added to this is the Lie who also wants to assert its claim to power. From this apocalyptic scenario, Hatred arises and anarchy reigns. The Last Judgement is imminent and Lucifer thinks he has won. But God's Voice steps in, destroys the Antichrist and redeems mankind, which now praises divine peace. 

Gina Perregrino in Antikrist
© Thomas Aurin

Mondtag is also the set designer, a single setting showing a street with colourful houses that could be anywhere. On the left is a neon sign that marks a bar, on the right a similar sign for a hotel. All action takes place on the street, where a twirling ballet appears, choreographed by Rob Fordeyn, in costumes reminiscent of Oskar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet, bringing verve and movement into the picture.

The large chorus performs here, all in painted, nude leotards, on the one hand gender-appropriate, on the other androgynous. Everything is applied with big, bold, colourful and expressionist strokes – there is no subtlety here. Many biblical texts are sung downstage, there is little interacting dialogue between the characters. Mondtag is a visual director who runs riot in this work, not least with the portrayal of God as an oversized hanged man, with female genitalia. 

Andrew Dickinson and Flurina Stucki in Antikrist
© Thomas Aurin

The first-rate ensemble of singers performed under fearsome masks and make-up, notably Flurina Stucki as the Great Whore, with a big soprano and even bigger breasts and hips, who comforts everyone. Lucifer was embodied by Thomas Lehman with a penetrating baritone. Actor Jonas Grundner-Culemann embued God's Voice with baritonal resonance. Clemens Bieber had to cancel at short notice due to illness and was replaced by tenor Thomas Blondelle who sang the role of the Mouth Speaking Great Words, acted by Miguel Collado Sanchez. Other smaller roles, The Air of Mystery (Irene Roberts) and the Echo of the Air of Mystery (Valeria Savinskaia), The Sullenness (Gina Perregrino), The Beast in Scarlet (AJ Glueckert), The Lie (Andrew Dickinson) and The Hatred (Jordan Shanahan) testified to the good musical level of the house.

Conductor Stephan Zilias and the DOB Orchestra tamed the creative power of the score with great instrumental relish – a good third of the score is purely symphonic. The large chorus, rehearsed by Jeremy Bines, also tempts the listener to ask whether this piece more of an oratorio than an opera. The audience was left visually and musically overwhelmed at the end. Although composed a century ago, Antikrist's core message is as applicable to today's world as it was back then.

****1