Resurrecting old opera productions is risky. No matter how nonspecific the concept and design, every production is marked by the taste and physical minutiae of its era. In a tribute to notable opera director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988), Ferenc Anger has revived his production for the 1978 world première of Aribert Reimann’s Lear. The result, painstakingly recreated from a video recording, verifies that the original production has largely stood the test of time. Ponnelle’s set is an ancient heath, with the action playing out among boulders fringed with thirsty shrubs. Pet Halmen’s mythic-medieval costumes are still imposing and effectively differentiate and connect the characters, most lucidly in mirroring Lear in his Fool, a spoken part enigmatically delivered by András Káldi Kiss. Outsize jewels satirise the grotesqueness of power and Lear’s horned soldiers prowl about like legendary beasts. The one aspect that has aged are the stage mechanics. Ponnelle’s heath quakes and heaves, reflecting the turmoil Lear stirs up when he makes the division of his kingdom contingent upon his daughters’ public display of affection. The rising boulders, probably state-of-the-art in the late seventies, now seem technologically unsophisticated. No matter, because the work’s cataclysmic drama springs from the score, and its execution was in trustworthy hands.

Éva Bátori, István Kovács, Caroline Melzer, Tomás Tómasson, Szilvia Rálik © Péter Rákossy
Éva Bátori, István Kovács, Caroline Melzer, Tomás Tómasson, Szilvia Rálik
© Péter Rákossy

Reimann’s serialist opera, one of the 20th century’s most successful, is unremittingly dark and violent. The vocal parts are a varied sampler, from bass to countertenor, and each character is given a recognisable musical imprint. Unusual orchestral colours include a disorientating bass flute solo. The work’s tonal complexity yields astonishing effects, such as the densely layered strings brewing up the storm that buffets Lear after his elder daughters cast him out. A huge percussion arsenal, including seven gongs, metal sheets and bronze plates, pounds out the barbarity that takes over his riven kingdom. One intermezzo sounds like thousands of rodents scuttling through a dark tunnel. The most potent aspect of the score is that it turns the characters inside out and exposes their inner world. Admittedly, it is more successful at expressing fear and brutality than grief and loss. And here we come to the only caveat. The title role, created for – and at the behest of – baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, remained emotionally unfocussed until the final scene, despite fine singing by bass-baritone Tómas Tómasson. Neither the score nor the libretto, which deftly simplifies Shakespeare’s complex plot lines, sufficiently explore the old king’s psyche. It is up to the interpreter to complete the portrait by vocal and theatrical means. In this Mr Tómasson was not helped by his mask-like make-up. Although glimpses of Lear's inner trauma emerged during his duet with good daughter Cordelia, sung with withdrawn fragility by Caroline Melzer, his madness remained a series of gestures and did not illustrate the fracturing of a mortally wounded self. In the last scene, score and staging finally encompassed Lear’s plight, allowing Mr Tómasson’s abject frailty to come through in his lament over Cordelia’s body.

Matthew Shaw (Edgar) and András Palerdi (Earl of Gloucester) © Péter Rákossy
Matthew Shaw (Edgar) and András Palerdi (Earl of Gloucester)
© Péter Rákossy

With no weak links in the cast, which was complemented by the first-rate all-male chorus, the big roles all received strong performances. Éva Bátori as Goneril was a fruity-voiced witch and Szilvia Rálik sensationally out-of-control as Regan. Everything about her was frighteningly spiky, from her bodkin-prick coloratura to her razor-sharp nails. There was also superb singing and acting from the Gloucester clan. András Palerdi, his bass smooth and resonant, exuded dignity as the Earl of Gloucester. After being blinded by the depraved Regan and her husband, this Earl retained his stature while arousing pity in his dejection. As his illegitimate son, tenor Frank van Aken domineered with vocal power and condensed energy. His Edmund leapt hungrily around the stage, a mass of elemental rage and pernicious virility.

Tomás Tómasson (Lear) and András Káldi Kiss (Fool) © Péter Rákossy
Tomás Tómasson (Lear) and András Káldi Kiss (Fool)
© Péter Rákossy

Reimann reserves his most remarkable vocal writing for Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate heir. Edgar sings as a tenor when he is himself but as a countertenor when disguised as wild man Tom o’Bedlam. Matthew Shaw was marvellous in both registers, but his Tom, shivering in a tattered loincloth, probed most deeply into the pathos of the tragedy. In a haunting vocalise, Tom keens for the whole savaged country. Mr Shaw, technically fearless and plangent almost past bearing, made his mournful monologue as powerful as the battering crescendos. In a work with so many dramatic peaks it is easy to give in to excess, but Stefan Soltesz and his orchestra reserved their full sonic terror for the most horrific moments. Staying on top of the difficult writing, which challenges musicians with microtones and meshed rhythms, they also found a myriad shades within the blackness of the piece. Even without its historical significance, its high musical values would be enough to justify this revival. After its current run, Lear returns in May during the Shakespeare400+ Festival, one of a dozen or so operatic Bard adaptations.