In honour of Beethoven year, Theater an der Wien commissioned a new work from renowned composer and creative, Christian Jost. In collaboration with librettist Christoph Klimke, Jost created a one-act setting (condensing Goethe’s play into 15 episodic scenes) of Goethe’s tragedy, Egmont, for which Beethoven composed theatre music in 1810. The tale packs in betrayal, murder, oppression, freedom, love and the Spanish Inquisition into a mere 90 minutes, yet does not feel rushed, due to its pacing, musical aesthetic and the dreamlike lens through which director Keith Warner frames it. 

Edgaras Montvidas (Count Egmont) and Bo Skovhus (Duke of Alba) © Monika Rittershaus
Edgaras Montvidas (Count Egmont) and Bo Skovhus (Duke of Alba)
© Monika Rittershaus

Warner is a magician of a director and this is a sleek, beautiful and deceptively technical production which is simultaneously busy, yet feels suspended in time. The use of levels and space is varied, from the doubles on black aerial silks and slings (SHADPERFORMANCE) descending from the heavens who ankle-drop to their deaths or transform into winged black cranes, to a hunting scene of man-deer (shades of The Most Dangerous Game?) to rotating white, wrought-iron cubes at a slant within which various scenes play.

Károly Szemerédy (Macchiavell) and Bo Skovhus (Duke of Alba) © Monika Rittershaus
Károly Szemerédy (Macchiavell) and Bo Skovhus (Duke of Alba)
© Monika Rittershaus

The fluidity of movement and transition features innumerable terrible, aesthetically rich visions — it is a beautiful nightmare, enhanced by atmospheric lighting (Wolfgang Göbbel), smoothly choreographed stage movement (Ran Arthur Braun) and minimal colour use. The costumes, like the set are exclusively in black, white or grey — with blood as a favourite accessory – and richly textured (Ashley Martin-Davis). They balance or reflect the stage design; Margarete’s tunic’s jagged ruffle becomes the wings of her aerialist-double which becomes the mass of black origami cranes suddenly suspended from the ceiling. 

Theresa Kronthaler (Ferdinand), Bo Skovhus (Duke of Alba) © Monika Rittershaus
Theresa Kronthaler (Ferdinand), Bo Skovhus (Duke of Alba)
© Monika Rittershaus

Adding to the dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality, nothing is rooted in time or place. Though Goethe’s play is set within the context of the 16th-century political effort of Holland to shuck off Spain’s oppressive rule, men here wear modern business suits in cafés or powdered 18th-century garb and wigs. Chronology is inessential; the story is a timeless one — idealism and moral courage in the fight for freedom and reason quashed under the thumb of political power, and the men who will stop at nothing to keep it. Evil to the core is Duke of Alba (Bo Skovhus), a towering Victorian sadist who murders and intimidates. His first victim is the lascivious but sympathetic Margaret of Parma (Angelika Kirchschlager) with the help of her lover, Macchiavell (Károly Szemerédy) doing his best Wormtail impression. Then sights are set on the idealistic Count Egmont, (Edgaras Montvidas) and his immortal beloved, Clara (Maria Bengtsson), a blonder, more proactive, less suicidal Klärchen figure with the ability to feather her high notes onsets like none other. Deputising his son, Ferdinand (Theresa Kronthaler), to do his dirty work ultimately backfires, but there is no real happy ending in sight; only love and the (futile) will to protect and cherish what is being destroyed remains.

Maria Bengtsson (Clara) © Monika Rittershaus
Maria Bengtsson (Clara)
© Monika Rittershaus

Musically, the landscape is likewise filled with activity, and the architecture and mood favours shades of unease over shock or obvious climax. There are sophisticated ebbs and flows without resorting to edgy contour or effect for its own sake; though Jost certainly utilises the range of colours and playing techniques available. Layered ostinati in the marimba or piano underlie dissonant scapes of sound, and the vocal tessitura is as difficult to transcribe by ear and as filled with the a-melodic intervallic cantilena and hollow straight tone sound as any fan of contemporary classical music could wish, but the effect is subtle instead of grating. Those looking to hear Beethoven’s themes, harmonic language or style will leave disappointed; this music exists securely in its own aesthetic.

Esther Schneider and Angelika Kirchschlager (Margarete von Parma) © Monika Rittershaus
Esther Schneider and Angelika Kirchschlager (Margarete von Parma)
© Monika Rittershaus

This world of unease, and feeling of suspended time — and this 90 minutes did still manage to feel long for exactly this reason — is an illusion created through complex, constant activity. Soloists, chorus (Arnold Schoenberg Chor) and orchestra (ORF) went beyond merely playing/singing this challenging score, and truly interpreted and performed it with musicality as well as attention to detail, giving a polished and much-appreciated rendition under Michael Boder’s baton. Congratulations are due all around.

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