Maybe the most famous early landscape painting, Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow from 1565 characterises Beat Furrer's new opera Violet Snow, commissioned by the Staatsoper Berlin. At first sight, Breughel's work offers an idyllic view of a group of hunters returning home. A snowy landscape extends to the horizon, showing quiet village life. Only upon closer inspection does this white-grey tableau reveal its horrors – the men return with barely any prey, the dogs look exhausted and hungry, crows circle above, a fire can is out of control, the inn sign is askew. A bird trap lets the knowledgeable observer know that the Last Judgment could begin at any time.

<i>Violetter Schnee</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Violetter Schnee
© Monika Rittershaus

The painting serves as an optical point of reference for the entire evening and Claus Guth awakens it to life with tableaux vivants figures emerging in slow motion from the painting in period costume. These groups alternate with the timeless contemporary style of the individual singers.

Martina Gedeck, a well known German actress, plays Tanja, the only figure reflecting any kind of hope in this story. At the beginning, she gazes at the painting, her choppy words trying to articulate its moods. Fadeout to reveal unceasing snowfall and to unveil five figures, trapped in a house surrounded by perpetual snowdrifts. Has the Apocalypse begun? One couple, Peter and Silvia, are gloomy, fearful and pessimistic. The other, Jan and Natascha, are trying hard to keep up an optimistic front. Jacques, recently widowed, mourns his wife. When Tanja, the museum visitor, appears, she becomes the one upon which all hopes are projected. In the end, when the palest of suns appears, the group is blinded by its glare. Whether the end is ultimately doom, liberation – or even both – remains open.

Anna Prohaska (Silvia), Elsa Dreisig (Natascha), Gyula Orendt (Jan) und Georg Nigl (Peter) © Monika Rittershaus
Anna Prohaska (Silvia), Elsa Dreisig (Natascha), Gyula Orendt (Jan) und Georg Nigl (Peter)
© Monika Rittershaus

Based on a piece by Russian cult author Vladimir Sorokin, Austrian poet Händl Klaus has written a parable for a situation of human and ecological hopelessness. The words are fragmented, chopped up into their smallest, still meaning-giving elements. Dialogue is replaced by mutual monologue, chattering style, stuttering. Increasingly repetitive scenes unfold, as communications between the five personages break down, leaving only flashes of thought, words thrown into the darkness of the snowy night. The excellent quintet of singers – sopranos Anna Prohaska and Elsa Dreisig, baritones Gyula Orendt, Georg Nigl and Otto Katzamaier – form a homogeneous group of individuals, each increasingly locked into their own individual desperation.

Gyula Orendt (Jan) and Anna Prohaska (Silvia) © Monika Rittershaus
Gyula Orendt (Jan) and Anna Prohaska (Silvia)
© Monika Rittershaus

The 64-year-old Swiss-Austrian composer Beat Furrer has written an unpretentious score for the approximately 100-minute piece. Although it starts with a whole series of crystalline tones, that keeps a whole battery of exotic percussion instruments busy, the score gradually reduces to a broad bass sound carpet, with occasional glissandi cascades. The score becomes more sound installation than music theatre, evoking the incessant snow blanketing the stage. This works well for the singers, who don’t have to fight heavy orchestration. Microtonal intervals allow events to float in the distance, the words take on the modular character of the music and the interludes alternate with long vocal passages. Conductor Matthias Pintscher weaves the intricately woven fabric of words and music expertly with the excellent Staatskapelle Berlin. The audience may well ask the eternal question – what came first, the music or the words? Furrer and his librettist Klaus do not give a straight answer. Maybe the answer for this production is: the staging comes first.

<i>Violetter Schnee</i> © Monika Rittershaus
Violetter Schnee
© Monika Rittershaus

Director Claus Guth, along with lighting designer Olaf Freese and video designer Arian Andiel, have created a space, which widens or shrinks as needed – a claustrophobic room created by stage designer Étienne Pluss transforms to a vast snowy landscape by means of the (finally working) hydraulics. Snowstorms sweep around a warmly lit room seemingly unaffected by weather phenomena. Shadows develop into wisps of the painting, which are projected on the ever present scrim. Costume designer Ursula Kudrna captures the spirit of Bruegel's painting for the many extras who sweep across the stage as well as the ordinary costumes for the soloists. The colour range for the sets and costumes, in keeping with the prevailing melancholy mood, is kept in whites, greys, black and pale pastels.

By strange meteorological coincidence, the opening date coincided with some of the strongest snowfalls and avalanches in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps of the past decades, needing federal emergency help to free entire trapped villages. This underlined the message of apocalyptic climate change of the piece and maybe even added to the warm reception the work received from the audience.

****1