The grandest of productions, Chaya Czernowin’s fourth opera opens with the minutest of gestures. The orchestra remains silent while an amplified double bass (Uli Fussenegger) plays a solo: scratches, glissandi, fragments. The curtain rises on a sparse stage on which a woman (soprano Patrizia Ciofi) and a man (baritone Dietrich Henschel) sit twenty feet apart facing the audience. The show of restraint feels quite audacious. As well as typifying Czernowin’s genius for musical nuance, it signals Heart Chamber’s focus: how small outer events can correspond to tectonic inner changes.

Noa Frenkel, Dietrich Henschel, Patrizia Ciofi and Terry Wey
© Michael Trippel

Heart Chamber follows the relationship of an unnamed woman and man (referred to simply as She and He) who find in each other succour from urban alienation. Through a chance event on some city steps, they become acquainted; afterwards, having fallen in love, they go to hell and back. But as Czernowin says in her non-synopsis, the opera has “only a hint of a story”, and rather than proceeding by way of plot or character development or anything traditional, Heart Chamber unrolls as “a chain of connected situations, dreams, nodal moments when something opens up or closes down”. This oblique approach is the novel opera’s strength and occasional weakness.

Claus Guth’s production at Deutsche Oper makes full use of the stage as a site onto which is projected the magnitude of the smallest things. Christian Schmidt’s set, full of modernist architecture, rotates from scene to scene. All the blanched facades and sharp corners suggest the tension between interior and exterior. The buildings’ white walls serve as a screen onto which video images (by rocafilm) are projected of natural imagery, psychic process, memories and so forth. Nature is juxtaposed with the domestic. Enigmatic scenes present multiplying selves and menacing children.

Dietrich Henschel and Patrizia Ciofi
© Michael Trippel

At times this is powerfully moving. Czernowin has taken a traditional operatic theme – love found, thwarted, possibly re-found – and given a fresh take. Rather than focusing on myth, histrionics or melodrama, she focuses on the quotidian: how we communicate by things unspoken; how a casual gesture can take over the mind. Ciofi and Henschel are convincing lovers, continually in tension. The effect is as of a dream, and more than once there was some affinity with David Lynch (particularly the oppressive domestic interiors of the first half of Lost Highway).

The exquisite music in all its strangeness complements what we’re seeing. Czernowin uses novel instrumental combinations such as electric guitar and snare drum, and the speakers fill with susurrating, pattering electronic elements ( developed at the SWR Experimental Studio). In addition to the orchestra, Czernowin uses soloists at either side of the stage and a choir in the balcony. Each of the two protagonists has a shadow self, a singer who voices their inner thoughts (contralto Noa Frenkel and countertenor Terry Wey). All this might be complex in conception, but it never feels gratuitous. Czernowin has conceived a novel operatic formula which on the whole is strikingly effective.

Patrizia Ciofi
© Michael Trippel

Things fall down slightly in dramatic terms, specifically in the characterisation and language. Neither of the principal characters has a name, nor as people do they have many specifics. We know nothing of what they like, what they despise, what they do at the weekend. Those of us who write fiction are told that character is defined through action. One doesn’t announce, ‘character A is angry’; one presents a scene where, losing his temper, he shouts at a cyclist on the street. One doesn’t announce, ‘character B is nervous’; one presents her making a cup of coffee and her shaking hands spilling the coffee on the floor. Defining characters through action allows the audience to identify with them and emotionally invest more in the story.

This is mirrored in Czernowin’s libretto, a couple of samples of which are as follows: “Your smell / Your touch / Your voice / Your eyes / Your mouth”; and “almost / unseen / fleeting / lucent / brook / luminous / snow”. As lyric poetry this is fine; as dramatic language it has limited effect. There is a famous quotation from Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” More everyday dialogue would have brought this audience member more fully into the action, since life is only universal inasmuch as it is utterly specific.

These caveats aren’t to take away from Heart Chamber’s achievement. It was a pleasure to witness a genuinely innovative opera on so grand a stage. Conductor Johannes Kalitzke directed with clarity the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, augmented by Ensemble Nikel, who combined with sensitivity to the score.