A white page, entirely blank apart from two lines of text “Morgen und Abend (Morning and Evening) is the struggle of Johannes into and out of life”, that’s the programme synopsis for this new opera at Covent Garden. Instead of narrative we get atmosphere and reflection, a discourse on birth and death, their similarities and connections. The staging in Graham Vick’s production is minimal but the music complex, leading to an unusually music-focussed evening of opera. Fortunately, Georg Friedrich Haas’ sophisticated score bears up to this scrutiny, not so much conveying emotions as providing a complex and finely textured continuum that forms the heart of the work.

Klaus Maria Brandauer (Olai) © ROH | Clive Barda
Klaus Maria Brandauer (Olai)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The birth scene takes the form of an extended spoken monologue with musical accompaniment. Veteran Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer is Olai, the hero’s father, waiting outside as his son is born. He speaks in English (the later singing is in German), and his voice is amplified, bringing valuable immediacy. It’s a compelling opening, not least for Brandauer’s expressive, if consciously theatrical, performance. He is just the prelude, though, to the more substantial death scene that forms the main part of the work. The single set (designed by Richard Hudson) is made up of a rotating stage, on which are a door, a bed, a few chairs, a fishing boat and a shopping trolley (that last the one visual miscalculation). Everything is in pastel grey or white, a suitably otherworldly colour scheme. We meet Johannes (Christoph Pohl), now at the end of his life, interacting, although at an unexplained distance, with Erna, his wife (Helena Rasker), Signe, his daughter (Sarah Wegener), and Peter, his friend (Will Hartmann).

The conceit, and it’s a bit flimsy, is that Johannes initially thinks they are all dead and returning to him in spirit form, but then realises that it is he who has in fact died. He must make peace with his wife and daughter before Peter leads him into the beyond. Johannes is a fisherman, and that final journey takes place in the small fishing boat – strong hints of Peter Grimes there. The stage gradually turns through a whole rotation in the duration of this scene, and the sun rises and falls, an effect achieved (by lighting designer Giuseppe De Iorio) with a large spotlight moving around the proscenium arch.

Christoph Pohl (Johannes) and Sarah Wegener (Signe) © ROH | Clive Barda
Christoph Pohl (Johannes) and Sarah Wegener (Signe)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Despite the lack of narrative, words are central to this production (the story is from a novel by Jon Fosse, who also wrote the libretto). Every line is projected (in English) against the backdrop, making the duplicating surtitltes annoyingly redundant. It also has the effect of further reducing the significance of the stage action; the experience becomes more about absorbing the meaning of the projected words while taking in the music.

The music begins with thunderous bass drum rolls from batteries of percussion in the boxes adjacent to the pit, but soon settles into an unbroken, gradually flowing and changing orchestral texture. Ligeti’s music of the early 60s is a clear ancestor, and when combined with the stark white visual images and low-angled lighting, Kubrick’s 2001 often comes to mind, especially when the monolithic door projects its long shadow across the stage. But, unlike Ligeti, Haas doesn’t work in continuous chromatic clusters, his textures are more open: octaves, tritones, even tonal triads. But most sounds grow from silence and swell in intensity before returning, subsumed by the next wave. Offstage choral effects are added into the mix, and Haas integrates the vocal timbre into the orchestral textures while deftly negotiating the more semantic and emotive dimension that voices always bring. Excellent musical performances throughout, with conductor Michael Broder, here making his house debut, bringing out all the textures and colours in a reading of impressive clarity and focus. A uniformly fine cast too, all of whom master the complex harmonic relationships – often very close harmonies or outright dissonances – between their simultaneous lines.

Helena Rasker (Erna) and Christoph Pohl (Johannes) © ROH | Clive Barda
Helena Rasker (Erna) and Christoph Pohl (Johannes)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Brandauer has called the opera a Gesamtkunstwerk, a fitting description for its unified artistic vision, even if comparisons with Wagner (or any other opera composer) are beside the point. But, as with Wagner’s music dramas, the desire to bring together words, drama and music on an equal footing always favours the music. That seems to be the greatest failing here, that the staging can’t match the scale of the score: but for the huge orchestra, this feels like a chamber opera. That imbalance aside, the results are impressive, the music always engaging, and the staging fulfilling all of its dramatic aims, however modest.