Mannheim National Theatre staging an opera in the shape of the world première of Der Golem: there’s something to thrill us. Director Peter Missotten has been working on it closely with composer Bernhard Lang, as well as being responsible for the stage design, lighting and the many video sequences, of which not all were produced specially for the stage work, some being pre-existing work. After examination of the “Video Libretto”, the composition of the stage work came easily to Bernhard Lang, and this flow is clear to see; Missotten and Lang are established as close-working team.

Raymond Ayers, Steven Scheschareg, Raphael Wittmer & Uwe Eikötter © Hans Jörg Michel | Nationaltheater Mannheim
Raymond Ayers, Steven Scheschareg, Raphael Wittmer & Uwe Eikötter
© Hans Jörg Michel | Nationaltheater Mannheim

This fruitful collaboration seems to have included the whole ensemble and orchestra. Raymond Ayer’s performance was solid and, above all, believable in the main role of Athanasius Pernath, a gem-cutter and precision craftsman, who became involved in intrigues in the Jewish quarter of Prague with Wassertrum, the secret mastermind who owns the ghetto. While Ayers in turn sang, spoke, once almost beatboxed, all singers also commanded a wonderfully off-beat slang underlining the scenery of the Jewish ghetto. A notable feature of the direction was that all the vocal parts were sung through microphones, through which the voices, even when they were down at a whisper, always came across through the auditorium in a sinister fashion. Unfortunately, the use of microphones did not permit the full variety of vocal timbre to be clearly distinguishable, although this did not diminish the theatre.

Young alto Alin Deleanu played the parts of Charousek/Wassertrum wonderfully, with clear notes and impressive transitions between head, chest and spolen voices; he supported the many repeats of phrases with excellent acting, showing particularly top quality in the first scene in which Wassertrum and Pernath meet. Charousek, on the other hand, a poor medical student, has dedicated his life to hatred of Wassertrum, because he had once sold his mother to a pleasure house. To make matters worse, Wassertrum is also Charousek's begetter and the role is set up to be dramatically explosive right from the beginning. When Deleanu is playing Wassertrum, he is convincing in portraying a miserly Jew, with a wittiness that brings a smile to many in the audience; none the less, his voice always carried the fundamental level of threat of his character.

Alin Deleanu (Charousek/Wasserturm), Nik Bos, Jelle Hoekstra & Caspar Wortmann © Hans Jörg Michel | Nationaltheater Mannheim
Alin Deleanu (Charousek/Wasserturm), Nik Bos, Jelle Hoekstra & Caspar Wortmann
© Hans Jörg Michel | Nationaltheater Mannheim

Another musically explosive passage is the scene in which Charousek “transforms himself” into Wassertrum, and the opera’s games with identity, consciousness and unconsciousness come to the fore. Surrounded by the mystical nature of the Golems (which are portrayed in this staging by three naked bodies), in which the impoverished student with tattered clothing is wrapped into costly apparel of black and gold, we hear quoted one of Bach’s church works, which interrupts what has, up to this point, been a radical, modern soundscape. Deleanu, surrounded godlike by the trinity of Golems, delivered a powerful dynamic, so much so that this particular moment turned into a physically potent experience.

In between, Astrid Kessler made attractive appearances in the role of Angelina, one of the two female roles, showing either sexual desire or yearning after innocence (Miriam, daughter of Rabbi Hillel). A curvaceous shape in a figure-hugging dress, Kessler also sang her role with a dark, rich tone; Raphael Wittmer was as brilliant as he was witty in the triple casting of Zwack, Wenzel and Schaffranek. It was the intensity with which all the singers interpreted their roles that made this opera such a compelling experience.

The work continued to produce moments which made a deep impression: Bernhard Lang made use of many repetitions; these were not varied, with one theme appearing in multiple colours, but were treated iteratively as far as possible. So the singers would be stuck on some particular repeat, singing the last phrase of a section continually and also repeating their portrayal of their own mannerisms. Such moments brought to the fore the mechanical nature of the opera, whereby the music seemed to be stuck like an old vinyl record, bringing across the threatening nature of the novel.

Astrid Kessler (Angelina) © Hans Jörg Michel | Nationaltheater Mannheim
Astrid Kessler (Angelina)
© Hans Jörg Michel | Nationaltheater Mannheim
In creating the musical setting with strong mechanical borrowings, Lang uses a classical orchestra for the first time in an opera, joined by a Jazz trio that underlines the highly rhythm-oriented aspect of the piece. Especially noticeable was the percussion which, in this complex composition, gave a precision to the music from the start. Big jazzy rhythmic passages were interspersed from time to time with soft string melodies, with the contrasts yielding a fine, sensitive result. With all these repeats at different tempi, there were various times at which it seemed difficult for the chorus, the orchestra and the soloists to be kept together, but for the most part, Joseph Trafton mastered these challenges well. It was lovely to see a contemporary opera – even, for once, a very modern opera - which doesn’t consist of grotesque sequences of notes but which is genuinely easy to grasp with its strong rhythmic nature and which thus becomes quite mesmeric. As in both the novel and on stage, spirituality, dreamscape and mystic reality are so interwoven, as operagoers, we were thoroughly immersed in a river of ecstasy.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin.

****1