Robert Wilson said, when preparing to stage Helmut Lachenmann’s deeply intricate and sensually vibrant opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, that he could not imagine staging it in a typical opera house. He could not have found a better hall than the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, a medium-sized town about an hour north-east of Düsseldorf and one of the host cities of this year’s Ruhrtriennale. It is the kind of work worth making a pilgrimage for, and not only because it is rarely staged (no doubt due in part to its extreme difficulty). It requires a particularly open mood of listening and watching, and rewards spectators who do not question but follow, who let its sheets of sounds ripple across them, forming both stark surfaces and tangled undergrowths of roots.

© Lucie Jansch, Ruhrtriennale
© Lucie Jansch, Ruhrtriennale

Written between 1990 and 1996, the opera follows Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the little match girl who, unable to sell any of her wares on a cold winter’s night, begins to light them herself. The plot of the story is barely a sketch, and Lachenmann uses it as a frame upon which to hang his explorations of different temperatures of sound, different textures of coldness and different kinds of warmth. He does so with a prodigious imagination of the sounds orchestral instruments and human voices can make; not concerned about inaudibility (he writes explicitly in the score that electronic amplification can be used if necessary), he fills the matchstick girl’s world with a thousand ways of drawing sound out of wooden and metallic bodies: tapping, scratching, whispering, clicking, sighing, blowing. For such a quiet score, the sound mix was rather loud the night I heard it, which is wonderful for hearing every note but a loss when you consider the expanses of quietness that went unplumbed. The production crew should risk audience inattention and force us to strain to hear in certain passages; then the urgency of rubbing matchsticks might be felt.

Robert Wilson framed the stage as a kind of surgical theater, with a floating modernist pool as the stage (the orchestra was arrayed above and behind the audience on all four sides). Figures inch across its surface, sometimes through fog. Its Wagnerian slowness works because the lighting is so stark, and the figures are so dreamlike and vivid (one character, straight out of a Miyazaki film, sported a long, thick fur coat and swung a giant ice-cube on a hook from each hand). Wilson is a director who does not ask “why”, but rather goes for the intuitive image, the strong image, each time. It’s a powerful strategy, and one that’s implicitly acknowledged in Lachenmann describing this work as “music with images” rather than as an opera. The success of those images depends not on the possibility of their gathering into a plot, or even into a visual arc, but rather on the potency of the actors’ gestures and on the visual force that is found moment after moment.

For the most part the moments are gripping enough, although there are inevitably lapses across a two-hour running time. I would have liked to see an escalation of certain images, such as the suspended Cold War bomb, or the floating island, instead of having each appear in a series of episodes. Even the implicitly incidental images to a piece of music must establish their own sense, their own self-reflexivity and arch; otherwise even the most music-focused opera can begin to sound incidental.

But these are small quibbles directed toward a production with an abundance of indelible visions, including some of the most haunting I have seen in opera. There were moments when an actor’s gesture linked a light cue with a shift in sound and it became clear what “music with images” could be, not the depiction of moods or thoughts but a marriage of intensities, an opening-up of all one’s senses into the same arena. It is the kind of sensual response that Lachenmann’s music demands, and that Robert Wilson’s dramaturgy, at its best, provides.