Over the 60 years of its existence, the Vienna Kammeroper has commissioned chamber operas by Maxwell Davies, Henze and Glass and made figures including Reimann and Birtwistle better known to the Viennese. When the house was run by Isabella Gabor and Holger Bleck over the last decade, contemporary music was taken seriously enough that one production a year was given over to a living composer even after a heartless subsidy reduction necessitated paring the season down to three operas, with a 2010 production of Birtwistle’s The Io Passion such a smash hit that a revival put on the following year played to packed houses. For opera in Vienna during my time here, that production still makes the top three.
The Theater an der Wien, which took over the house at the beginning of this season with plans to develop a young Rossini ensemble, has acknowledged the house’s success with contemporary music theatre respectfully, sticking to the pattern of one new production a year and bringing in resources from outside to cover what their new ensemble can’t currently stretch to. In practice this has meant a low-key affair for the current season, albeit one which sees the reintroduction to Vienna of German composer Hans-Jürgen von Bose, whose work was last put on in the city ten years ago (another chamber opera, 63: Dream Palace, produced by the Neue Oper Wien).
Bose’s latest, the world première of a chamber piece inspired by Kafka, is titled Verkehr mit Gespenstern, which translates something like contact or communication with ghosts. Two male figures appear, sometimes as one, sometimes aware of each other, sometimes oblivious to their own identity and wider reality. Both are supposed to represent Kafka and over 70 minutes they act out a tumultuous drama consisting of some 20 brusque episodes. A Kafkaesque sense of rootlessness, instability and disorientation is conveyed nightmarishly by Peter Pawlik’s production, which mixes German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s with black box experimental theatre of the 1970s and almost gleefully goes about piling up dream states, references to Kafka’s tuberculosis and horrific images of bureaucracy with stark visuals, frenetic pacing and grotesque Personenregie. Though not as profound as Kafka can be, the stage direction is pointed, unexpectedly sensitive in places, and always the right side of slick.
There is little point trying to follow a narrative, as the sequence of events – a miscellaneous collage of texts taken from The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and Kafka’s diaries – is deliberately incoherent, and yet ordered in some consistently meaningful way in a deeper sense; Bose has spent the last 20 years engaging with Kafka musically and it shows. His score too is somewhat of a potpourri – Varèse and Cage by way of Lachenmann – amounting to an inauthentically authentic idiom.
Tim Severloh is one of the few countertenors active, in Europe at any rate, in the contemporary scene, and together with his colleagues Andrew Watts and Daniel Gloger is always worth catching in this repertoire. He was in fine voice and strolled through all the vocal challenges Bose threw at him, but is an even finer actor and made up to look like Orson Welles – in Vienna no less – was a mesmeric stage presence, by turns full of bitter black humour and self-pitying introspection. Falko Hönisch, who appeared alongside Severloh in the Theater an der Wien’s production of Lera Auerbach’s Gogol last season, made less of an impression as the baritone Kafka but sang firmly and acted the less apparently unhinged of the pair capably.
Bose’s ensemble is pruned to a single accordion and cello and few musical possibilities for this pairing are left unexpended; Martin Veszelovicz and Luis Zorita were both excellent, not least of all when called upon to form a Brechtian chorus.
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