According to the programme, at one point composer Jörg Widmann requires the chorus in his opera Babylon to split into 94 parts. I hope this is a misprint, but Babylon is a fearlessly ambitious composition. This impressive performance at the Holland Festival, led by the intrepid Markus Stenz, was deservedly cheered at length. However, Peter Sloterdijk’s libretto, in German with lashings of Babylonian, is too abstract for a concert performance. Clocking in at three hours, the work could also benefit from selective cuts.

<i>Babylon</i> © Hans van der Woerd
Babylon
© Hans van der Woerd

Set at the time of the Jews’ Babylonian exile, the opera explores the conflict between the Apollonian (reason, temperance, Judaism) and the Dionysian (instinct, desire, Babylonian gods). Tammu, a Jewish captive, is torn between the Soul, his Jewish beloved, and the seductive Inanna, Babylonian priestess of the goddess of love. When Tammu is sacrificed to appease the gods, Inanna descends into the underworld to bring him back, in a gender-reversal of the Orpheus myth. The soul-body dichotomy is resolved with a Nietzschean ending. Love conquers death and smooths out cultural differences. After singing a drowsy barcarolle, the Soul dissolves into light, while Tammu and Inanna depart in a spaceship. The tower of Babel collapses and a new world order ensues, organised into seven-day weeks, a Babylonian invention. All gods are declared powerless.

The plot, or rather philosophical treatise, unwinds laboriously across seven scenes, which get progressively shorter, like the ever-narrowing tiers of a ziggurat. A Scorpion Man sings a Prologue in a post-apocalyptic landscape and comes back for the Epilogue, during which he stings himself, and is then cloned into a myriad scorpions. I have no idea what he stands for but Kai Wessel, a fantastic countertenor, conjured up scorched desolation with Widmann’s sinuous atonality.

The libretto does both too much and too little. It bulges with expository monologues, arcane postulations, creation myths and Biblical allusions. The trumpets that brought down the walls of Jericho inspire epic-film fanfares from Widmann. Seven are the doors to the netherworld that Inanna opens by unclothing, and seven are the singing planets. There are two genitalia septets, male and female, singing and dancing at a New Year’s celebration, where the music is joyfully carnivalesque, but the text is didactic and humourless. While pelting us with tropes Sloterdijk forgets to flesh out the three main characters. Tammu, Inanna and the Soul remain vague allegorical figures, making it difficult to care what happens to them. The most human character is the river Euphrates lamenting during the Biblical Flood. Veteran Wagnerian Gabriele Schnaut opened the sluices of her mighty voice and galvanised the hall, singing and declaiming every syllable with resounding clarity. Widmann’s flood music is terrifying, but Schnaut was even more so.

At its world première in Munich in 2012, Babylon received a visually lavish staging by Carlus Padrissa, which probably helped the public to embrace it immediately. As inventively textured as the music is, it cannot, on its own, make up for the sluggishness in the plot. It is, however, in turn beguiling, exuberant and overwhelming. A sea of restless colour, it regularly swells into immense tidal waves. Touches of eloquence with spare means include the rasping introduction to the human sacrifice in the lowest orchestral registers and the light percussive punctuation of sung speech. No praise is high enough for Stenz and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, who revealed this remarkable score in all its variegated detail. Guest instruments in the hundred-strong orchestra included an accordion, a heckelphone, a piano and an organ. There was also a water glass in the metal-heavy percussion section. Widmann’s polystylism comprises free atonality, Wagnerian amplitude, late Romanticism, Bavarian beer tent jollity, and a recurring love duet reminiscent of West Side Story. Stenz and his musicians handled all of it with flair. The same goes for the Netherlands Chamber Choir and the Netherlands Radio Choir. They were magnificent in the dense, massive polyphony and exact in the septets and spoken choruses.

The soloists were equally capable. Marisol Montalvo (Inanna) and Guibee Yang (the Soul) distinguished themselves in coloratura roles that like to live above top C. Yang sang with opaline beauty. Montalvo delivered her impossibly florid lines while projecting the allure that defines her character. The role of Tammu should not exist. It requires riding a full orchestra like a heldentenor and being as limber up top as a light lyric. Jussi Myllys, the lyric tenor who created the role, tackled it admirably. Robert Bork lent his mellow bass-baritone to the Priest King and his falsetto and other special effects to the Goddess of Death. Bass-baritone Simon Duus was a luxury Scribe, and tenor Steven Ebel an assured Priest. Actor Franz Tscherne was a persuasive Ezechial, leader of the Jews, and the two sopranos from Tölz Boys’ Choir delivered gilded messages. They all made hearing this performance utterly worthwhile.