If you think passing a camel through the eye of a needle is no easy task, try fitting an ocean and seven islands in one room and making them sing for almost one and a half hours – and you will possibly have come close to what composer Oscar Strasnoy and librettist Sigrid Behrens achieve in their latest opera, Robinson, which had its world premiere at the Staatsoper Berlin. Commissioned by the theatre, Robinson is not exactly a ‘stage work’, since no actual stage is set in the rather small rehearsal room where the premiere took place. Instead, Strasnoy’s experiment could more readily be described as an installation, or perhaps – as it is named in the programme book – a quite peculiar “chamber opera”. Blurring the lines between art forms, Robinson is only loosely based on Daniel Defoe’s novel, employing its source mainly to reflect the concepts of isolation and alienation, while omitting its colonialist backdrop. Strasnoy and Behrens turn the exceptionality of Crusoe’s story into a condition both paradigmatic and paradoxical, where solitude seems to be what unites us the most.

Stephan Klemm (Robinson Crusoe)
© Gianmarco Bresadola

Divided into nine variously paced sections, the opera traces Robinson’s week, framing the seven days with a prologue and epilogue. But from the very moment the chronicle begins, we learn that he is not alone: in a radical rethinking of Defoe’s narrative device, the man’s voice is dispersed, split between six more people – the other “islands” – who shatter the novel’s self-referentiality into a plurality of thoughts, feelings and needs. When they are not singing together as one role (The Sea), they maintain personified but individual identities as Youth, Old Age, The Outcast, The Future, Divergence and Mediation. Rather than being Robinson’s subordinates, these characters are his equals, also trapped on islands of their own.

In order to visualise the idea of shared seclusion, director Anna Bergmann makes full use of the space available by placing five of the characters on single platforms surrounded by transparent, distorting curtains, and letting the other two, Robinson and Mediation, roam free. In the dim, blue lights that colour the setting, a round section is also outlined in the middle of the room, where the audience sits in concentric rows at the centre of which lies the conductor’s podium. Not too far into the opera, though, it becomes clear that no border will be left unquestioned or untouched. Not only do the seats turn out to be mobile, rotating in both directions and letting the audience engage with the setting immersively; the characters too constantly break through their barriers, with Robinson making his way between the seats and even reaching the conductor to offer him a few glasses of liquor. But most importantly, as Mediation gets the curtains to fall one by one, the five prisoners leave their platforms and begin to acknowledge each other’s presence and to interact.

Fredrika Brillembourg (Old Age), Friederike Harmsen (The Mediation) and Johan Krogius (The Outcast)
© Gianmarco Bresadola

Long before their breakout, however, the seven “islands” are already ideally intertwined through music. In fact, Strasnoy’s score makes the dichotomy between confinement and togetherness acoustically tangible. Setting Behrens’ purposely fragmented text to music, the composer propagates it through a polyphonic weave that may seem self-absorbed, but whose proper rendition depends on an airtight cohesion between the singers. The vocal harmonies in Robinson are not simply an aesthetic end, but also the materialisation of an encounter. Indeed, the entire ensemble proves up to the task. 

Stephan Klemm sang the title role ranging from brief utterances to full melodic lines with the lyrical quality and perceptive phrasing of a basso cantante. Written for a coloratura soprano, the role of The Future was an obvious match for Regina Koncs’s vocal swiftness and agility. And just as fortunate was the choice to cast tenor Johan Krogius as The Outcast and baritone Carles Pachon as Divergence, the former intimidating and visionary, the latter brazen and seductive.

Stephan Klemm (Robinson Crusoe) and Regina Koncz (The Future)
© Gianmarco Bresadola

But as the shipwreck strands the seven survivors on their respective islands, it also preserves some of their belongings, remains that act as mirrors and identifiers of the owners. It is a part of this debris that Strasnoy uses as the only source of instrumental music in the opera, together with two self-playing pianos. Piled up on one side of the room, a quantity of commonplace objects whose movements were automated and mechanised by Edgardo Rudnitzky produced a mostly repetitive, percussive soundscape, replacing a man-made ensemble. Leading such an orchestra, so domestic and dehumanised at once, must have been a curious endeavour for conductor Markus Syperek, who managed to ensure a good balance and rhythmic accordance between the machines and the singers. It was in this oscillation between human and inhuman, self and others, that Strasnoy found the ideal musical means for a meditation on loneliness in our times.