Babylon has always been synonymous with multi-cultural language turmoil and promiscuity. In 2012, the German composer Jörg Widmann and the philosopher and poet Peter Sloterdijk premiered their first collaboration with an opera by this name at the Bavarian State Opera. Now, Widmann has revised the work extensively and it has been premiered at the Staatsoper Berlin.

Charles Workman (Tammu) © Arno Declair
Charles Workman (Tammu)
© Arno Declair

What do we know about the real Babylon? It was the capital of a city state on the Euphrates River where, in pre-Christian times, science, trade and art flourished. Many different ethnic groups lived there side by side, influencing one another. Widmann focuses on just two of these groups: the Babylonians and the Jews. He and Sloterdijk have written a work that is strongly based on a love triangle storyline. The Jewish Tammu is torn between his Pure Soul and his love for the very sensual Babylonian high priestess, Inanna. There are orgiastic parties, visions of the archetypical Flood, divine inspiration is invoked by philosophers, with the final verdict being that Tammu must be sacrificed to the gods. After his ritualistic death, a desperate Inanna decides to visit the underworld to persuade Death to give back her lover. Death actually makes an exception, just to amuse himself, and lets Tammu return to the realm of the living. Inanna and Tammu, now reunited, are the catalyst for a new covenant between heaven and earth to take place, symbolised by a rainbow. Each of the seven major gods gets their own special day of the week. A child admonishes everyone to take responsibility of their own destiny and the Pure Soul dissolves into light so that it will shine for all in the future.

Susanne Elmark (Inanna) and Ensemble © Arno Declair
Susanne Elmark (Inanna) and Ensemble
© Arno Declair

Jörg Widmann, now in his mid-40s and celebrated as an accomplished musician and composer, packed everything into Babylon – from classical arias to dissonant clusters, military marches, film music and a few chamber music moments. British conductor Christopher Ward, who already directed the first version in Munich, skilfully holds the crowds onstage and orchestra pit together, guiding them through the complicated score, often eliciting musical colours that are too loud.

Set designer Harald Thor has built a multi-level, stage-wide “paternoster” elevator background, which rises and falls allowing for ever changing backdrops. The maze of small rooms is full of folks who engage in activities that are often sexual in nature. There is no sunshine or fresh air here. The visual cross-section is bleak and dark – you can easily conjure cockroaches and smells that are bound to be part of places such as these. Tanja Hofmann has designed costumes, which range from Grunge looks to B-movie science fiction. Olaf Freese lights up the stage like an Old Master painting, full of light and dark allusions.

Sir John Tomlinson (Royal High Priest) and Staatsopernchor © Arno Declair
Sir John Tomlinson (Royal High Priest) and Staatsopernchor
© Arno Declair

Stage director Andreas Kriegenburg paints cliché-rich figures with a big psychological brush. He has his hands full organising all the various groups – sex workers, philosophers, priests, children, ordinary folk – there's always something going, making it a challenge for the eye to grasp it all at once. Thankfully, he can count on a very co-operative chorus (directed by Martin Wright and Anna Milukova), supernumeraries and children's chorus, who all make the stage come alive and give the impression of multicultural chaos with a certain Rubensian opulence.

Otto Katzameier (Death) and Ensemble © Arno Declair
Otto Katzameier (Death) and Ensemble
© Arno Declair

Tenor Charles Workman is torn between his two worlds of opposing principles: on the one hand, his Jewish soul embodied by Mojca Erdmann, who appears in radiant white, addressing the issues of purity and glory with the clearest, iridescent soprano and, on the other hand, the voluptuous and earthy priestess of the goddess of love, Inanna. The warm coloratura soprano Susanne Elmark, in a shimmering red sequin dress, is convincing as the self-sacrificing lover. The Royal High Priest is sung with great dignity by Sir John Tomlinson. Bass-baritone Otto Katzameier is convincing in the pliant role of Death, his head adorned by a crown of thorns. Mezzo Marina Prudenskaya is the surging and life-giving river Euphrates, her expressive timbre ideal for the role of Mother Water. British Countertenor Andrew Watts embodies a human scorpion, a puzzling, commenting character which, in the end, destroys itself.

Despite all the musical and visual chaotic splendour, there is a certain lack of satisfaction in the end. Was that a happy ending or is the world really crashing down around us now? Presumably, every viewer can draw his/her own conclusion.

****1