This year’s Dutch National Opera’s season opener fulfills a shared wish by principal conductor Marc Albrecht and artistic director Pierre Audi to stage Arnold Schoenberg’s monumental cantata Gurre-Lieder. A scenic world première, it is also their first conductor-director collaboration. The result is fascinating and emotionally charged musical theatre.

Burkhard Fritz (Waldemar) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Klaus) © Ruth Walz
Burkhard Fritz (Waldemar) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Klaus)
© Ruth Walz

In 1900 Schoenberg set Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Songs of Gurre, translated from Danish into German, as a song cycle for soprano, tenor and piano. The romantic, mystical poems are based on the medieval legend of King Waldemar, whose jealous queen orders the murder of his mistress, Tove. Crazed with grief, the king curses God and resurrects an army of fallen warriors to avenge her death. Schoenberg decided to orchestrate the songs, composing a mammoth score that echoes Wagner, Mahler and Strauss, then put them aside for years. By the time he finished Gurre-Lieder, more than a decade later, he had already composed several significant atonal works. Like a colossus, Gurre-Lieder stylistically straddles the 19th and 20th centuries. Its theme of impossible love recalls Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The first half churns with late Romantic emotional tides, while the second moves onto the quicksand of tonal uncertainty and features Sprechstimme, or melodramatic recitation, a 20th century operatic device.

Pierre Audi’s production similarly juxtaposes the two centuries, incorporating painterly depictions of nature, absurdist images and video technology. Taking 1913, the year the work premiered, as his centre point, Audi inscribes a temporal and thematic circle that includes fin de siècle opulence and shadowy visions foretelling the First World War and beyond. He focuses on externalising emotions and the nonlinear plot unfurls in ripples of dreams and memories. When Waldemar and Tove sing their string of love songs in Part I, it is uncertain whether their encounter is real or an expression of the king’s longing, but the king is already beset by fear of loss. The magnificent set by Christof Hetzer is a dilapidated courtyard surrounded by two storeys of doorways. The stone is bitumen-black, dappled with rich greens and ochres. Maybe we are inside, maybe outside. Or maybe the doorways lead to Waldemar’s mind chambers. The darkness is broken by a luminescent balloon carried by Klaus the Fool, an outstanding and letter-perfect Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. This white figure moves gingerly, reminiscent of Pierrot Lunaire (Pierrot Lunaire being, of course, one of Schoenberg’s major compositions). This production is replete with such associations and credit must go to dramaturg Klaus Bertisch for its evocative visual layering.

Burkhard Fritz (Waldemar) and Emily Magee (Tove) © Ruth Walz
Burkhard Fritz (Waldemar) and Emily Magee (Tove)
© Ruth Walz

In the pit Marc Albrecht led the full-force Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in a smouldering Part I, alternating sensual movement with dreamlike suspension of sound. The plangent, controlled string section deserves special mention. Maestro Albrecht does explosive outbursts marvellously well, and it does not get more explosive than the gargantuan choruses in Part III. The Chorus of the Dutch National Opera, reinforced with the ChorForum Essen Chamber Choir, were a vocally shattering ghost army, in dusty hussar uniforms, ingeniously lit and choreographed to enact both bloodlust and decay. Chorus and orchestra again produced a thrilling deluge of sound in the final hymn to the rising sun.

Soprano Emily Magee was an elusive, amber-voiced Tove, a Jugendstil vision in a feather-patterned gown. Her middle voice was sometimes lost in the thick orchestration, in spite of Maestro Albrecht being mindful of sound balance. In the upper register Ms Magee’s limpid, full voice soared freely, most poignantly in her last song, “Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick” (You send me a loving glance). Anna Larsson’s dungeon-deep contralto perfectly embodied the dread and despair in the Song of the Wood Dove, here a beautiful, statuesque Angel of Death. Ms Larsson amply compensated for the somewhat quavery ascents up the scale with spear-like voice projection and a gripping account of Tove’s killing.

Anna Larsson (The Wood Dove) © Ruth Walz
Anna Larsson (The Wood Dove)
© Ruth Walz

In the unsparing role of Waldemar, Burkhard Fritz delivered a musical and theatrical tour de force. Cleverly pacing his singing, he was pitch-secure and tireless to the end, his Heldentenor easily riding the orchestral fortes. He played the anguished king with physical abandon and boundless energy, his graphic spiralling into madness excruciating to watch. A stentorian, high-leaping Markus Marquardt as the Peasant made a worthy drinking companion to the deranged king. Sunnyi Melles was the androgynous, dancer-like Narrator. With her piercing, fear-drenched voice, she set the scene for the spectral raid, reciting a Jacobsen poem called “The Wild Hunt”, an effective addition to the original text.

The mayhem over, Waldemar finds peace in death. The Narrator reminds us that nature continues to renew itself, unperturbed by human suffering. “But Tove is here and Tove is there, Tove is far and Tove is near,” sings the king, in a song which gave us Fritz’s loveliest singing of the evening. The sun’s rays light up the natural world, the only dimension where the lovers can be reunited. But is it the sunrise? Or a nuclear flare? Human destiny remains open-ended.