Two men. Two nations. One goal. Can there be anyone who doesn’t know the gripping tale of Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and the race for the South Pole? Bavarian State Opera has taken this myth-laden material and, with the help of Czech composer  Miroslav Srnka, served it up as a full length opera, entitled South Pole. The resulting production is a glamorous one.

Scott team and Amundsen team © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Scott team and Amundsen team
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper

On the podium stood principal music director Kirill Petrenko. On the stage, the duel between Rolando Villazón as Scott and Thomas Hampson as Amundsen, the orchestra pit bursting at the seams, stage direction from no less than Hans Neuenfels, while ARTE recorded the well-hyped première for later broadcast. But was this really the right recipe for success, or had the Munich opera house set a different course?

In stark contrast to the star offering, the stage was sparse and remote from reality. In blindingly cold white, the polar wastes were sketched with many flat planes and virtually no props: six horses and a snowmobile, six dogs for Amundsen. That’s it. On the left, the disorganised Scott team battled against cold and madness; on the right, the markedly more successful Amundsen team. Only a single black X in the background serves to illustrate the geographically inaccessible target.

Rolando Villazón (Robert Falcon Scott) and Thomas Hampson (Roald Amundsen) © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Rolando Villazón (Robert Falcon Scott) and Thomas Hampson (Roald Amundsen)
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Beyond the composition of the stage, South Pole is a strictly symmetrical double-opera, sonically closer to the abstract than to the lyrically concrete. That’s audible from the first notes. “Dah-di-di-di-dit dit dah-dah-dit…” – a capella, Rolando Villazón and Thomas Hampson send each other messages in Morse code. On the stage both teams, who never laid eyes on one another in 1911, are only separated by a few metres and a white beam. Staggered by a few seconds, the tenor sang an imaginary duet with the baritone, which happens only in the head of the two rivals. In Tom Holloway’s libretto, however, both polar explorers are tormented by the same thoughts: both are consumed by the same fears.

And so, the surreal rapidly begins to take over proceedings. Srnka’s score required a new conductor’s desk to be made specially to accommodate its large A2 format. It expresses not so much the timeless ice as the stressed psychological state of the two rivals. Jarring, icy, glockenspiel-like sounds fill the foreground, sometimes echoed by the strings; there is little musical shape for the ear to get hold of. Srnka has split the orchetra into a great many individual voices, posing a challenge to make even Kirill Petrenko sweat over.

Petrenko swings his baton with the highest concentration, his gaze rarely straying from the score, but in truth, he is unable to weld a single entity out of the many different instrument combinations. The reason is not so much in Petrenko’s conducting, which is meticulous, but the highly fragmented nature of Srnka’s score. In some spoken passages, the singers have to be amplified, so as not to be submerged in the pervasive polyphony. This seldom culminates in emphasising crescendi; rather, the sound is notably monotonous and untransparently repetitive . From which, therefore, the question inevitably arises: why were such huge orchestral forces required?

Ronaldo Villazón, Tara Erraught (Katherine Scott), Thomas Hampson & Mojca Erdmann (Landlady) © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Ronaldo Villazón, Tara Erraught (Katherine Scott), Thomas Hampson & Mojca Erdmann (Landlady)
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Rather, Srnka’s South Pole is carried forward by the words of the two teams. The undisputed star of the evening, Thomas Hampson, has four baritones on his side, while Rolando Villazón is supported by four tenors. The musical aspects of the role of the British polar explorer are clearly tailored to Villazón, but as time progressed, he seemed to lose stamina. He held on bravely in the many monotones in his middle register, yet his voice couldn't cope with the lower parts of his role. But one thing has to be said: he showed irreproachable stagecraft in bringing to life the epic race to the South Pole, crucial in bringing significant warmth to a meagre staging.

 

Of course, the tragic fate of its hero cannot be escaped. In the overwhelming cold, Scott started to hallucinate. In his dream, his wife appears to him, sung in a beguiling mezzo by the superb Tara Erraught . Maintaining the symmetry of the opera, Amundsen also has visions of his beloved, sung by Mojca Erdmann, tightly clad in white, with a soprano voice that was solid in all its highs. The unearthly quartet of the four people tormented with worries was one of the few real highlights of the evening.

All in all, South Pole doesn’t live up to its huge expectations. At no point does Hans Neuenfels’ restrained staging risk the boos of the audience; even make-up for the frostbite on hands and feet wasn't horrifying. It’s hard to find much food for thought in the predictable plot. The same goes for Srnka’s music: it remains pleasantly featherlight, never too uncomfortable, but not challenging or (alternatively) convincingly descriptive either. The wind, which howls through the stairway of the National Theatre in an acoustic installation by Moritz Gagern, is unfortunately the musical highlight of the evening.

But perhaps it is simply that the idea of setting the race to the South Pole to music was overambitious. The staging of the two pioneers totally in parallel might have worked better on screen than on stage. The connections between Amundsen and Scott are of course imaginary and in the end, they were not really convincing. None the the less, the audience appeared to enjoy the evening and was suitably appreciative of the strong performance of the whole ensemble.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin.