There are two life events shared by all humans, indeed by all creatures: birth and death. Everything that happens in between – growing up, family life, work life, leisure – is what constitutes an individual’s unique “life experience”. In his short novel Morning and Evening, originally written in his native Norwegian, Jon Fosse focussed on birth and death of a fisherman named Johannes. Writing his libretto for Georg Friedrich Haas' new opera, Fosse stripped the second part of his novel, Johannes’ death, to its bare minimum outline. His birth, largely narrated by Johannes' father Olai, received not quite the equal amount of time as his death on stage, but certainly the opera gave more weight to Johannes’ birth than the brief pages in the novel.

Klaus Maria Brandauer (Olai) © Marcus Lieberenz
Klaus Maria Brandauer (Olai)
© Marcus Lieberenz

Graham Vick's production, which opened at Covent Garden last November, features a bare stage in chalky hues. Walls are ash gray, as is the floor and the minimal furnishings, including door, bed, boat and several chairs, are all in white.  Johannes’ life is essentially compressed into these few objects. The six characters – Johannes, Olai, Johannes’ wife Erna, his youngest daughter Signe, his best friend Peter, and the midwife (doubled by Signe) – are all costumed and made up in similar somber colors so that they blend into the surroundings. The effect is a sense of otherworldliness, even before the opera begins. Here is a world devoid of color. The only contrast is one of light and dark, and here Giuseppe Di Iorio's lighting was effective in illustrating the starkness of existence.

The first five rows of the orchestra were left empty as two sets of percussion were placed on either side of these seats along the walls. They loudly and dissonantly announced the opening of the opera but most of the music was not only tonal but mostly quiet and meditative. Johannes’ birth was graphically illustrated by the orchestra, including the anxieties experienced by Olai, as he waited alone outside the bedroom. This part was spoken by actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. The transmission of his voice via microphone unfortunately marred his diction at times, but he ingeniously conveyed both the joy and sorrow of a new life having been born into the harsh life of a fisherman like himself. The whole birth scene was an intense build up by nervous strings and occasional loud percussion that screamed for relief, which was provided by the final arrival of Johannes.

Will Hartmann (Peter) and Christoph Pohl (Johannes) © Marcus Lieberenz
Will Hartmann (Peter) and Christoph Pohl (Johannes)
© Marcus Lieberenz

The tone of the opera quickly changed as the aging Johannes entered through the door on stage. German baritone Christoph Pohl, tall, lanky and with beard, had a quiet but magnetic presence that immediately commanded attention. His voice, unassuming and yet gentle, gradually gathered strength as Johannes, his spirit on the day of his death still lingering, tried to make sense of his strange new existence. He reminisced about his dead wife, his devoted daughter and his dead friend, Peter. His anguished cry as he sang of his loneliness after his wife’s passing, “I am alone!” was heartbreaking. In a relatively short period of time (the entire opera is only 90 minutes long without intermission), Mr Pohl managed to create a complete character, an ordinary human being who lived a good life filled with love, and who now prepared to transition to the new phase.  

It is this view of death as “moving on” to the next stage of existence, that was the central to Mr Fosse’s work. While paying tribute to “God”, who is watching from far and yet is also near, the concept seemed larger than the Christian meaning of death. It was the sense of nothingness, as Olai mused upon his son’s birth, that he was coming from nothing and was going back to nothing, and the often eerie and contemplative music, that led the audience to experience the hereafter that transcended here and now, a collective meditation. Of the strong ensemble of singers that supported Mr Pohl, Sarah Wegener was a standout as both daughter Signe and the midwife, her clear and expressive soprano soaring above the orchestra. The orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin played with vigor, crispness and gentle subtlety under the firm direction of Michael Boder.