Inspired by the tightly-crafted 1949 novel of Japanese novelist Yasushi Inoue, Thomas Larcher’s The Hunting Gun is set to a libretto by Friederike Gösweiner. The opera’s timeless theme of clandestine love and its tragic resonance was delivered by a core group of five principal singers in conjunction with a superb choir and orchestra under the musical direction of Michael Boder.

Robin Tritschler (Poet) © Bregenzer Festspiele | Anja Köhler
Robin Tritschler (Poet)
© Bregenzer Festspiele | Anja Köhler

The story is straightforward: Walking toward the summit of Mount Amagi, a poet notes the movements and demeanour of a passing hunter and publishes a poem about that man’s seeming loneliness. Purely by chance, the hunter Josuke Misugi recognises himself as the subject of the poem when it is published, and contacts the writer with a plea to understand him. Years before, when Josuke dallied with his lover Saiko on the beach, his wife Midori saw them and realised her husband was having an affair with her best friend. Midori concealed her knowledge of their liaison, but in the ten years that followed, Saiko kept an explicit diary. When Midori finally reveals that she knew of the affair all along, Saiko implores her daughter Shoko to burn the diary, but instead, the young woman saves it from the flames, and is horrified by its contents. Full of shame for her indiscretion against a friend, Saiko commits suicide. The novella is presented in the form of the poet’s introduction and letters from the three women, and calls up a ubiquitous question: “What is this torment that each of us bears?”

The pacing of Larcher’s opera was restrained throughout, its motion essentially quiet, although the singers’ powerful voices carried handsomely in the Werkstattbühne, an enclosed and much smaller alternative to the popular Seebühne for which the Bregenz Festival is best known. The smaller venue seats some 600 and served The Hunting Gun with the intimacy it deserved.

Olivia Vermeulen (Saiko) and Andrè Schuen (Josuke Misugi) © Bregenzer Festspiele | Anja Köhler
Olivia Vermeulen (Saiko) and Andrè Schuen (Josuke Misugi)
© Bregenzer Festspiele | Anja Köhler

Katharina Wöppermann’s simply-appointed stage underscored the notion of containment: a large white, bevelled frame narrowed the visual perspective and constrained the action. Inside, a white walkway on a slant; a stylized white cloud lent other-worldly presence to the largely black and white set. Intermittently, oversized clips of nature gave us moving images on a flat backdrop – twinges among pine branches, rolling waves – that altered the set location.

The principals gave the work a palpable three-dimensionality. While their movements were sustained, quiet and ever formal, the insights they shared in the human condition were enough to tear one apart. French soprano Sarah Aristidou truly exploded in her anguished role of the daughter Shoko; aware of her mother’s infidelity, she gnashed her teeth and coiled her body around its core enough to recall the postures of a raging samurai warrior. Indeed, if the Japanese ideal of femininity predisposed most women to powerlessness, Aristidou played the exception for the unflinching muscle and remarkable range of her high voice alone.

Italian soprano Giulia Peri sang the tragic role of Midori, the hunter’s wife. Peri is entirely at home in contemporary music, and gave us an insightful model of deference, since it was one that was clearly boiling beneath. Austrian baritone Andrè Schuen capably – if somewhat modestly – sang the role of the hunter, a role hard-put to inspire sympathy. Dutch mezzo-soprano Olivia Vermeulen’s Saiko imparted a palpable sense of indecision, guilt, self-doubt and remorse. Alone her sweeping bright yellow gown with its high neck of striking black seemed to issue a clear warning. Indeed, her character goes on to commit suicide. 

Olivia Vermeulen (Saiko) and Andrè Schuen (Josuke Misugi) © Bregenzer Festspiele | Anja Köhler
Olivia Vermeulen (Saiko) and Andrè Schuen (Josuke Misugi)
© Bregenzer Festspiele | Anja Köhler

The very same bedsheet that coddled the lovers in Act 1 is used as a shroud after Saiko’s death, underscoring the avoidance of any superfluous props. The stage here is that of the inner life instead, one which the poet, sung by the Irish tenor Robin Tritschler, summed up beautifully: “What is this torment which each of us bears?”, he asks. Appearing only at the start and finish of the opera, Tritschler’s crystal clarity and fine enunciation framed the opera as neatly as an origami box. All five figures periodically left the platform stage to stand just before the audience, bonding us even more closely to the drama’s events.

Throughout, Larcher’s orchestral music was compelling in its variation and dissonances, and as tight as a tick in implementation. Under Michael Boder, the Ensemble Modern, which specialises in contemporary music, was accompanied by the superb choral contribution of the Schola Heidelberg. Director Karl Markovics is to be highly commended for a bone-stark but superbly-tempered production, one which emotes something as powerful “as a volcano deep below a sea of ice”. 

 

Sarah's accommodation in Bregenz was funded by the Bodensee Vorarlberg Tourist Board

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