Friedrich Nietzsche’s life was not that of an isolated contemplative but rather full of personal frustration, eventually ending in syphilitic madness. While his work has been often linked with music--most notably in his relationship with Wagner and Richard Strauss’s tone poem based on Also sprach Zarathustra--making his life into an opera may seem a dubious proposition. But that is exactly what Dionysos, a new music theater work by Wolfgang Rihm that is currently being seen at the Holland Festival, attempts to do.

© Ruth Walz
© Ruth Walz

It is not a literal biography, of course. Rihm takes for his text the philosopher’s late collection of poetry, Dionysian Dithyrhambs, rearranged into a series of loosely narrative scenes. We follow a Nietzsche-like figure, named simply N., through various dreamscapes given stark, cartoon-like life in Jonathan Meese’s sets. In each scene N. attempts to find love, in each he is defeated. First he pursues and is pursued by Rhinemaiden-like nymphs, one of whom emerges as Ariadne (Nietzsche’s nickname for Cosima Wagner, to whom he wrote unsent love letters), bearing her mythic thread and demanding that N. speak. For a long time, as she winds her way through a virtuosic monologue of high soprano coloratura gymnastics, he cannot. Finally, he utters the enigmatic “I am your labyrinth.” He is joined by “A Guest,” alternately a rival and companion, who can do everything he can’t.

The adventures are fantastical and abstract. The allusions to Nietzsche’s life, such as a visit with the nymphs where he presumably contracts his syphilis, more incidental than meaningful. Poetry hangs in the air, lines are repeated over and over. In the end, N. turns into the mythic Marsyas and is flayed alive, followed by an allusion to the supposed cause of Nietzsche’s madness--seeing a coachman beat a horse. What it all means is a difficult question, but it’s a wild ride.

This is mostly thanks to Rihm’s music and the striking images of Meese’s production. Dramatically, the characters never develop and the themes are too elusive to sustain much interest in the libretto, despite its poetic moments. And for some the plight of a frustrated male genius surrounded by women in lingerie can be a bit tiring. The primary interest is musical. Rihm’s score, led with confidence by Ingo Metzmacher and played by the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest, is rich but never cluttered, and often lyrical, particularly the harmonizing of the nymphs. Other times it can turn violent, with shouted choruses and enormously loud drumrolls. It is mostly nontonal, but owes more to Berg than his teacher Stockhausen.

The cast was uniformly excellent, led by the incredibly physical performance of Georg Nigl as N., singing and screaming all the angular lines of the score with as much commitment as he trembled through his character’s madness. Cyndia Sieden sang the cruelly high music of Ariadne and the first nymph with secure, laser-like tone and slithered around seductively, though the libretto does not give her any personality traits. Matthias Klink was a suave Guest and the other women harmonized beautifully. The space necessitated amplification, which was well executed with the exception of the overly loud offstage chorus. Rihm’s music also presents some problems in its text-setting in this space. Particularly in the women’s music and the chorus many words were incomprehensible. (The performance was in German with Dutch surtitles.)

Pierre Audi’s production is dominated by the outsize, surreal images of Meese’s sets. They are mostly composed of striking painted flats, some of massive size, and the images help enliven the static drama and fits its fantastic character admirably. The production was first seen in a conventional theater space at the Salzburg Festival last summer, but in Amsterdam is being performed at the spectacular Gashouder, a massive cylindrical gasometer. In such an impressive space, it seems a shame that the production basically uses a conventional proscenium stage, but this was probably a necessity of co-production. It was only with the placement of percussionists in the upper levels of the building in the second half that the potential of the building was used to advantage.

Dionysos will be performed in July 2012 by Berlin’s Staatsoper, again in Audi’s production with Metzmacher conducting.