Itʼs a rare stage interpretation of a literary work that thoroughly captures the essence and spirit of the source material. In the case of the National Theaterʼs new production Sternenhoch, the opera not only brings to life Ladislav Klímaʼs 1928 Expressionist novel with an electric jolt, but goes it one better.

<i>Sternenhoch</i> © Patrik Borecký
Sternenhoch
© Patrik Borecký

The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch is actually less a novel than an extended exercise in depravity. Told in a series of journal entries by the title character, it chronicles his infatuation with a much younger woman whom he marries, abuses, tortures and eventually murders. But her ghost – or is it her cadaver come back to life? – will not leave him alone. The horrors that follow encompass almost every sexual perversion imaginable, giving Klíma a canvas on which to paint life as a grotesque, nihilistic endeavor from which the only sane retreat is a descent into madness.

Though almost universally reviled at the time, Sternenhoch has left an enduring imprint in a part of the world that also gave birth to Kafka and struggled mightily to survive 40 years of Nazi and communist occupation. And the work is not entirely without merit. It has a mordant wit and in its better moments draws heavily on deep thinkers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in considering concepts like will, subjectivism and spirituality.

<i>Sternenhoch</i> © Patrik Borecký
Sternenhoch
© Patrik Borecký

How to handle all this? Composer and librettist Ivan Acher and stage director Michal Dočekal approach it as a danse macabre, a tightly choreographed, erotically charged tragicomedy performed with clockwork precision to a predominantly electronic score. The main characters – Helmut Sternenhoch, his wife Helga, her father, a dungeon-master lover and the gypsy witch Kuhmist – are supported by five dancers who often propel and join in the action. A riot of provocative costumes – except for the dancers, no two are the same – and creepy sets and lighting make for a toxic brew spiced by dashes of Edgar Allen Poe, Tom Waits and Rocky Horror.

Bulgarian-Ukrainian tenor Sergey Kostov shows remarkable facility in the title role, rising to the demands of often-delirious vocals ranging from romantic bombast to a cringing falsetto. Czech soprano Vanda Šípová does heroic work as Helga, dragged around the stage, chained by her wrists and ankles and sexually abused while singing plaintive, affecting lines about love and loss. For all that, the most intriguing figure onstage may be Tereza Marečková as Kuhmist, outfitted as a female satyr who taunts and torments the other characters with a violin or viola in hand.

<i>Sternenhoch</i> © Patrik Borecký
Sternenhoch
© Patrik Borecký

The only other traditional instruments in the production are a contrabassoon and zither, played by two musicians who also man a large bank of electronics at stage right. Acher makes a convincing case for not needing any more, crafting infectious dance rhythms and powerful atmospherics with a full-bodied score that employs sounds and textures ranging from orchestral strings to electric guitar. Far from limiting the musicʼs reach and impact, his use of electronics shows an uncommon command of the medium and offers imaginative possibilities for contemporary opera. Even conductor Petr Kofroň, a serious-minded modern music enthusiast, is moved to break form when he gets up in the pit and starts dancing along with one of the more infectious production numbers, eventually pulled back to his seat by the prompter.

<i>Sternenhoch</i> © Patrik Borecký
Sternenhoch
© Patrik Borecký

The best contemporary opera is moving in a direction that might more accurately be called music theater, a fusion of forms that combines elements of traditional opera and drama with experimental music to create a new hybrid. With its seamless synthesis of sound, sensibilities and stunning visuals, Sternenhoch is a sterling example of the emerging form and as good a piece of avant-garde music theater as one is likely to find in Central Europe these days. It will return in June as part of a new contemporary opera festival being staged by the National Theater – an encouraging sign in a hidebound city that for too long has been content to live in the musical past.

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