The events that inspired Das Floß der Medusa, an indictment by Hans Werner Henze against social injustice, are the stuff of nightmares. Romeo Castellucci has now staged it for Dutch National Opera, where it opened the third edition of the Opera Forward Festival. Despite his bold cinematographic concept, the musical performances were the strongest dramatic aspect of the production.

Mamadou Ndiaye; Lenneke Ruiten (La Mort) © DNO 2018 | Monika Rittershaus
Mamadou Ndiaye; Lenneke Ruiten (La Mort)
© DNO 2018 | Monika Rittershaus

In 1816 the French frigate Méduse ran aground on a sandbank on its way to Senegal to reclaim lands for the French crown. Around 150 of its passengers ended up on a raft being towed by lifeboats, but this proved unworkable and they were cut loose. They starved, fought, committed suicide and killed and ate each other. When a passing ship rescued them, only fifteen men were left alive. Reports of the calamity caused a political scandal in France. The painter Théodore Géricault immortalised it in his painting Le Radeau de la Méduse (1818-1819). Henze wrote his oratorio as a requiem for Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, using the abandoned raft as a metaphor for political indifference and exploitation. Ernst Schnabel’s graphic and poetic libretto combines eyewitness reports with quotations from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The terror of the victims is painted with jagged, dissonant brass and alarming percussion. Even as they struggle desperately to survive, the dying are drawn to Death (La Mort), the soprano soloist. Lyrical string elegies mourn their plight. A baritone solo voices Jean-Charles, a sailor-diarist on the raft, who was rescued, but in a state too weakened to survive. Charon, ferryman of the underworld, a speaking role, gives factual details about the voyage. The major vocal role is reserved for the chorus. The living express their anguish in staccato sung speech, atonal intervals and abrasive polyphony. The dead sing chorales of other-worldly beauty.

<i>Das Floß der Medusa</i> © DNO 2018 | Monica Rittershaus
Das Floß der Medusa
© DNO 2018 | Monica Rittershaus

Castellucci illustrates the subject with footage of a Senegalese actor performing an endurance swim at Banc D'Arguin, scene of the shipwreck. Behind the projection scrim, the chorus stands on platforms that simulate wave motion at variable speed. Singers and platforms are shrouded in black, and the bobbing faces in the sea of darkness are an eerie sight. The reference to the unseaworthy vessels overflowing with migrants in the Mediterranean is clear and uncomfortable. Castellucci succeeds in creating the sensation of drifting in open water – seasickness threatens from the constantly lurching horizon. He does little, however, to describe the hopelessness in emotional terms. His Death is a reporter in an oilskin duster and wellingtons, camera in hand. At the end she turns the camera towards the audience and the auditorium appears on the screen, in an attempt to implicate the public in the tragedy. Because the seats are empty, this attempt misfires. A film synchronization mishap at this point during the première did not help. Henze indicates that the living and the dead should occupy different sides of the stage, with the living crossing over when they die. Castellucci eliminates this distinction, which is his prerogative, but he doesn’t provide an alternative. Having the whole chorus behind a filmed body of water means everyone looks drowned from the word go. Apart from a couple of falling extras, there is no sense of the unfolding catastrophe – the violence to secure a safe place on the raft, the terrible thirst, the dumping of the sick into the ocean.

<i>Das Floß der Medusa</i> © DNO 2018 | Monica Rittershaus
Das Floß der Medusa
© DNO 2018 | Monica Rittershaus

Musically, there was copious compensation for the lack of visual narrative. Under Ingo Metzmacher, the Netherlands Philharmonic sweated feverishly, keened and thundered. They played tightly and with lustrous sound. Metzmacher seemed especially determined to extract every ounce of lyricism from the score. Just as formidable was the combination of the DNO chorus, Cappella Amsterdam and the children of the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor. They made the complicated writing sound as if it were something they sang every day.

Baritone Dale Duesing acted the role of Charon. He started out matter-of-factly, as if doing a voice-over for a documentary, then gave way to bursts of emotion as the story turned grisly. Castellucci’s decision to make Charon report more and declaim less underlined the contemporary relevance of the story. Soprano Lenneke Ruiten sang La Mort with a cold, dazzling beauty, her spectral top notes gliding effortlessly. With extraordinary eloquence, Bo Skovhus brought the tragic Jean-Charles to life, rising to great interpretative heights in his dying arioso, the “Ballad of the Man on the Raft”. His gamut of expressive colours conveyed the sense of increasing despondence that was missing from the staging. 

****1