The world premiere of an opera is always exciting – listening to a new piece without any preconceived notions – how will it be liked, or not? At the premiere of the eleventh opera by Detlev Glanert, Oceane, it was liked. Hans-Ulrich Treichel wrote the libretto based on the fragment of a novel Oceane von Parceval by Theodor Fontane, who in turn was inspired by his very independent daughter. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Fontane, a well known German novelist of the 19th century. This opera, commissioned by the Deutsche Oper, is an homage to him.

Nikolai Schukoff (Martin von Diercksen) and Maria Bengtsson (Oceane) © Bernd Uhlig
Nikolai Schukoff (Martin von Diercksen) and Maria Bengtsson (Oceane)
© Bernd Uhlig

Oceane is a young woman who emerges out of nowhere, stirs up the bourgeois summer guests at a seaside resort at the turn of the century, conquers the heart of a young man, then disappears again mysteriously. She identifies with nature, is silent and withdrawn. Similar mysterious, disembodied female figures abound in literature – Mélisande, Rusalka, Undine, even the Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. They all have one characteristic in common: they do as they please and do not conform to the standards of society around them.

The 90-minute opera is just long enough to tell the story, without tiring its audience. Detlev Glanert does not deny his musical background and sources of inspiration, coming from the school of Hans Werner Henze, his music also reflects the mature Richard Strauss. The orchestration of many passages is very dense, giving the impression of superimposed layers of sound. In the composer’s own words: “Oceane’s motif is a broken D major chord and many splits, so there are only high and low tones and nothing in the middle. There is an implicit imbalance in her character. Conversely, the music for her young man has a very richly composed middle but no high or low notes. You can hear these two are just not compatible.”

Doris Soffel (Madame Louise), Maria Bengtsson (Oceane) and Albert Pesendorfer (Pastor Baltzer) © Bernd Uhlig
Doris Soffel (Madame Louise), Maria Bengtsson (Oceane) and Albert Pesendorfer (Pastor Baltzer)
© Bernd Uhlig

Together with the stage director Robert Carsen and the stage designer Luis F. Carvalho, they create a melancholic late summer atmosphere. From a completely darkened hall, spheric sounds arise. It is not clear at first, are they voices or instruments? At the same time, a faint projection on the stage scrim becomes visible, the pixelated portrait of a young woman, Oceane. The camera dives into the pupil of her eye, which then opens up to an all-encompassing seascape. This seascape, created by video artist Robert Pflanz, with its gentle waves and cloudy sky, dominate the backdrop. Together with the elegant black and white fin de siècle costumes by Dorothea Katzer they help to create the monochromatic mood of a late summer holiday at the end of the 19th century. This feeling of uncertain loss is also felt on the terrace of the hotel, where Madame Luise laments her impending bankruptcy. The arrival of a seemingly very rich, unknown young woman is more than welcome, especially as the most coveted bachelor, Martin von Dircksen, immediately falls in love with her. But her aloofness and later her unabashed free dance do not fit in with this society. Although a double engagement is celebrated – Oceane’s companion and Martin's friend fall in love – Oceane disappears, just like that. She is, however, well educated enough to write a polite farewell letter to the desperate young man who is left behind, gazing over the sea.

Maria Bengtsson, Nikolai Schukoff, Nicole Haslett and Christoph Pohl © Bernd Uhlig
Maria Bengtsson, Nikolai Schukoff, Nicole Haslett and Christoph Pohl
© Bernd Uhlig

The cast is well thought out down to the smallest part. Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson is an ideal Oceane, her clear soprano is as cool and disembodied as she is beautiful. No wonder that Nikolai Schukoff as the young landowner Martin von Dircksen falls in love with her on the spot. His character is the exact opposite of hers – a down-to-earth young man, with a strong middle voice but a forced top. His friend Albert is the proverbial best friend, well portrayed by baritone Christoph Pohl. Oceane’s young companion Kristina is sung by Nicole Haslett with a cheerfully cute coloratura. Still invincible as a singer and actress, mezzo Doris Soffel is Madame Luise, who likes to remember her past in belle Paris and still hopes for a financial miracle to renovate her own Grand Hotel. At her side, the faithful servant Georg, brilliantly interpreted by bass-baritone Stephen Bronk, with a long-suffering shuffle and some great commenting lines. With his dominant bass, Albert Pesendorfer is the staid pastor who values ​​social conventions above all else and has no understanding for Oceane’s free spirit.

It is easy to hear that Donald Runnicles feels completely at home with Glanert’s musical language. The diversity and multi-layered colours are expertly handled by him and his orchestra. The chorus, rehearsed by Jeremy Bines, is well coordinated and represents the bourgeois society with conviction.

****1