Before they even started, the twin opening of Johannes Harneit and Gero Troike’s operas Abends am Fluss (“Evening on the river”) and Hochwasser (“Flood”) were hailed as operatic highlights, indeed as important cultural political events. Not merely because these were world premières of a collaboration between a West German composer and on East German librettist, but also because these are works which failed in the cultural political circumstances of their creation, originally intended for a première in Leipzig. The performance of the Heidelberg Opera Ensemble was even more spectacular for it, with both these operas placed in the tradition of Theatre of the Absurd and performed convincingly with their politically explosive strength of message.

Choir and Extrachoir of the Theatre and Orchestra Heidelberg © Annemone Taake
Choir and Extrachoir of the Theatre and Orchestra Heidelberg
© Annemone Taake
Water is the metaphor that binds the two works – water as the flux of time, as an element that washes in and clears away past, present and future, water as the pole of hope, that changes life and, in the end, takes it away. Abends am Fluss uses the metaphor of water as the flow of time; stories grow out of the river in separate scenes, just as fragmented as the word patterns of current languages. The music symbolises this flow, together with the chorus and with moving components of the set.

The orchestra was set out both in the orchestra pit and in the circle, thus providing a spacious sound field that carried the listener with thoughts of a river. The composer supported this with motifs in the style of dialogues between the various instrument groups. The sound moved around the hall, moved around the audiences, seeming to flow. This sound field was what made the music so exceptional. Its modern idioms turned into a comprehensible item which tied the audience into the happenings on stage.

“I was, I am, I will be.” The first moment of the work made one aware of its political dimension as the words of Rosa Luxemburg (borrowed from Ferdinand Freiligrath) were displayed across the set. Out of the waters appeared four archetypal characters: an old man, a child prodigy, a woman and a dog. They all were, are, will be: the ensuing political statement, from a socialist revolutionary context, squires an existential dimension, moving from the abstract to the personal. Each of these characters sang this statement in a melody based on speech intonation, through repetition of a single word until the phonemes become unrecognisable. After hearing that, traditional opera singing seemed almost mechanical and inhuman. With exceptional skill, Angus Wood, Irina Simmes, Tomas Möwes and Namwon Huh switched their voice between operatic style, speech-melody, screaming, sobbing and various alien vocal colours, supported by the orchestra.

Irina Simmes as Woman © Annemone Taake
Irina Simmes as Woman
© Annemone Taake
Onto a flowing, atonal musical base were developed small, circular motifs, sometimes repeated ostinato lines, sometimes following sequences of scales that moved around in the hall. The wind sound was especially precise and beautiful of timbre, from the menacing interjections of the trumpets in the face of inevitable death to the muffled, surreal motif that accompanies the entry of the dog.

Various items of scenery rise out of the waters: a graveyard, an East German flag, a family scene, a 1960s kitchen, a department store called “Paradise”, a capitalist satire of the creation story, a prison-like cage in which one could perhaps see Sigmund Freud, a rape scene. There were moments of past, present and future, which were presented to the audience. Some were provocative to the point of outrage – as in the children’s chorus witnessing sex acts or the retelling of the creation story: the chorus calls out “It’s break time” on the seventh day, while the orchestra grows louder and the scenery transforms into a 100 Euro bill.

Outrageous as these scenes appeared at first, a second look transformed them into a sobering and accurate picture of our time: men without identity confronted with sexuality, with violence, with different ideologies and political systems, and finally with their lives, their existence and their mortality. It was an impressive and provocative performance. Words, staging and music made you think, shocked you, puzzled you. There was a rare stylistic integrity between text, commenting music and staging.

Wilfried Staber (heavier case) and Ipc̆a Ramanović (lighter case) © Annemone Taake
Wilfried Staber (heavier case) and Ipc̆a Ramanović (lighter case)
© Annemone Taake

The evening closed with the première of the opera Hochwasser. This production, in the theatre’s old hall, brought a completely different character to the stage, albeit one no less serious and critical of society. Hochwasser tells the story of two old packing cases which have lain in a cellar for 20 years, waiting for the flood to come and take them on their travels. Director Peter Konwitschny used the whole of the old hall as a performance space, and placed the audience on and over the main performance area in the middle of the hall. Therefore every seat position had a different viewpoint, although one’s view of the action was sometimes limited or hindered by the dazzle of spotlights.

Wilfried Staber gave an extraordinary performance, portraying the heavier case as a well travelled, learned man. Ipča Ramanović also impressed as the lighter case, with his bright expression and the clarity of his voice. Musical interest came from the combination of traditional, mainly tonal operatic singing with a small orchestra which specifies two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart, together with Piccolo, Alto flute, bass clarinet, tuba, electric guitar, brilliant solo viola, bells and percussion. “Extended techniques”, atonality and microtonality gave the singing an unusual unity.

Singers and orchestra continuously interacted with each other, blending music and acting togather. Scenes broken up ironically, such as the appearance of the flood as the chorus, clad in blue with spiked hats make their entrance with a melody imitated by the orchestra as they sing “platsch platsch” and spray water onto the musicians, characterise this work just as much as the tragic death scene, in which the larger case meets his end in the long awaited water. This was a staging that didn’t explain everything, that united seriousness and irony, that gave some answers but left unanswered many questions, which invited you to reflect and seriously posed the questions of human existence.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin