Toward the end of Pierre Audi’s last season at Dutch National Opera, the house has revived one of its artistic director’s most admired productions. The first ever and, so far, only staged version of Schoenberg’s gargantuan cantata represents the best of Audi’s innovative work. After Wednesday’s première, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands recognised his long-standing contribution by awarding him the Medal for Art and Science of the House-Order of Orange, whose recipients include Mstislav Rostropovich and Bernard HaitinkWhile nothing can match the first-time impact of this staged Gurrelieder, revisiting it reveals a wealth of detail difficult to absorb on first acquaintance. Four years on, there is only one cast change and the original musical quality has been preserved.

Burkhard Fritz (Waldemar)
© DNO 2018

Schoenberg worked for ten years on his setting of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s poems. The work was first performed in 1913, and is both a culmination of and an epilogue to late German Romanticism. It also maps Shoenberg’s development as a composer as he moved away from the legacy of Wagner and Mahler, both of whom echo strongly in the Songs of Gurre, to an individual idiom, more transparent and tonally treacherous, that was to lead him to twelve-tone serialism. Gurre Castle is the domain of Waldemar, a Danish king whose wife has his commoner mistress, Tove, assassinated. Felled by grief, Waldemar curses God and raises an army of dead warriors with whom he terrorises the countryside on a nightly hunt. As in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Waldemar and Tove have an ecstatic meeting. Also Tristan-esque is the metaphysical transfiguration that follows Waldemar’s rage and desperation. Water, wood and sky have absorbed Tove and she speaks to Waldemar through nature, intimating a union beyond death. 

Anna Larsson (Wood dove)
© Marco Borggreve

In Part One the lovers address each other in a series of alternating songs that never become a real duet, making their encounter a challenge to stage. Their tryst around a giant bed can feel a little inert. However, if one thinks of Gurrelieder as a string of dream sequences, the lovers’ songs become a magical trance, a languid idyll that turns into a nightmare. The trick is to get sucked into the decaying magnificence of Christof Hetzer’s set, an enormous 19th-century institutional edifice. Jean Kalman’s lighting makes the speckled walls quake, ripple like water and even turn to molten metal when Tove’s murder shakes the world. The stage imagery makes grateful use of one of the cantata’s main themes, the moral superiority of all-consuming love to religious belief: garlanded Gothic tombstones, upside-down crosses and the incongruous appearance of a deep-sea fish evoking the Christian ichthus symbol. The visuals range from the subtle, such as sprouting weeds marking the passage of time, to the spectacular. Once experienced, the male chorus of zombie hussars is never forgotten.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Klaus the Fool)
© Marco Borggreve

Musically, the chorus and orchestra provided the biggest thrills. The Dutch National Opera Chorus, augmented with the Kammerchor des ChorForum Essen, were overwhelming in the soldiers’ choruses and the final “Hymn to the Sun”. It is a shame that the initial prelude and first couple of songs suffered from looseness and uncertain pitches. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra under Marc Albrecht clicked into gear for the third song, when the king gallops on his horse towards his beloved. From then on their opulent playing throbbed with suspense, sailing from one orchestral highlight to the other. In the “Song of the Wood Dove” the orchestra and contralto Anna Larsson, on coruscating vocal form, were nothing short of sensational. This narrative lament in which nature, voiced by a dove, reveals the queen’s butchery, is the work’s dramatic turning point. Larsson and Albrecht brought out its agonizing intensity with bewildering nuance. Larsson’s statuesque Angel of Death, in Victorian mourning dress and black wings, is another memorable image.

Christof Hetzer's set
© Marco Borggreve

Emily Magee was Tove in 2014, the filtered light in her voice projecting an idealised feminine softness. Soprano Catherine Naglestad, with her bright sound and focused top notes, was more hot-blooded and confident. Despite exemplary singing, both Naglestad and tenor Burkhard Fritz as Waldemar frequently receded behind the orchestral onrush. The huge set, combined with the thickness of the orchestration, was likely to blame. As the orchestration lightened in Part Three, this problem disappeared. Bass-baritone Markus Marquardt as the terrified farmer and tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Klaus the Fool, a ghostly Great War soldier carrying a moon-balloon, profited from better sound balance. Both sang as impressively as four years ago. Actress Sunnyi Melles was the androgynous Speaker, injecting wonder and angst into her sung speech about nature’s ambiguous life force. Fritz reprised the vocally and emotionally taxing role of Waldemar with undiminished prowess. In fact, his interpretation has gained in heightened lyricism while losing nothing of its fierceness. There is a sense of occasion to every good performance of Shoenberg’s Gurrelieder, but its visual poetry and associative tapestry make this production unforgettable.