From the Beginning

Jesse Simon

viernes, 13 de abril de 2018
Berlin, martes, 27 de marzo de 2018. Konzerthaus Berlin. Adam’s Passion by Robert Wilson and Arvo Pärt. Pärt: Sequentia; Adam’s Lament; Tabula rasa; Miserere. Robert Wilson, director. Konzerthausorchester Berlin. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Tönu Kaljuste, conductor
Wilson: Adam’s Passion © Lovis Dengler, 2018

Over the past four decades, both Arvo Pärt and Robert Wilson have been working toward their own particular aesthetics of stillness, stripping away the inessential to reveal ideas at once simple and universal. Although the two have followed very different paths, their works are not without obvious affinities. Mr Pärt’s choral works have drawn inspiration from the performative traditions of the Orthodox Church, and even some of his nominally secular chamber and orchestral works have a patient grandeur that contains the force of ritual. Music, of course, has been a consistent and integral presence in Robert Wilson’s often ritualistic vision of theatre, and some of his greatest creations have come about as the result of close collaborations with musicians as diverse as Philip Glass and Tom Waits. 

For Adam’s Passion – which first appeared in Tallinn in 2015 and recently had its German première as part of the festival of Baltic music at the Konzerthaus – Mr Wilson used three of Mr Pärt’s extant works, plus a newly-composed prelude, as the foundation for a humanistic evocation of the creation and the fall. On paper, the pairing of Mr Wilson’s approach to theatre with Mr Pärt’s music – performed by an ensemble and choir under the direction of Tönu Kaljuste – seemed almost too perfect, and there was a danger that the rigid aesthetic of one might overwhelm the other; yet in the evening’s finest moments, image and music achieved a mesmerising co-existence. 

The Konzerthaus has been used on occasion for semi-staged operas, but it is fundamentally a concert hall and its lack of wings, a pit, or any kind of stage machinery don’t make it an obvious choice as a venue for complex works of musical theatre. But here everything seemed to work. With black curtains and a white screen, Mr Wilson fashioned a kind of void where the podium had once stood; the ornate decoration on the loges simply vanished into the black. A narrow spit of stage, bordered by Mr Wilson’s trademark blue light, extended down the centre aisle about halfway into the auditorium. The musicians, including a string orchestra, percussionists, a choir and several soloists, were placed behind the audience in the balcony. 

After the lights went down, there was a long silence; then, almost imperceptibly, a hint of sound. A long, hazy horizontal bar of light appeared at the foot of the screen and started to move slowly upward, turning into a vertical bar when it reached the top; it was accompanied by Sequentia, a haunting work for string orchestra and percussion that seemed drawn from the same well of inspiration as Mr Pärt’s Fourth Symphony. Together, light and music conspired to evoke a moment of creation. Mr Wilson normally wields light with surgical precision, but the hazy glow of the prelude captured the transitional essence of a world yet to become form. 

There followed another brief interlude of silence and darkness, and when the music returned the stage was shrouded in smoke-machine fog; at the centre stood a naked human figure. In the course of the first section – accompanied by Adam’s Lament, a setting of a text by St Silouan of Athos for choir and string orchestra – the man moved very slowly from the back of the stage to the very tip of the stage extension, where a branch with a few leaves sat illuminated from above. His simple, straight journey took nearly half an hour, and along the way he seemed to be coming to terms with his own physical being: he flexed his hands and blinked his eyes as though for the first time, luxuriating in these new sensations without breaking the fixity of his forward stare. At one point he discovered he could control the lights (to some extent) with sudden movements of his arm. Behind him, two strange figures, like Michelin men with boxing gloves, spun in a series of spirals before disappearing again. The man finally arrived at the branch and picked it up, just as the final notes of Adam’s Lament faded to silence. 

The second sequence – set to Tabula rasa, for two violins, prepared piano and string orchestra – achieved perhaps the greatest balance between music and action. Not that the painstaking movement of figures on the stage seemed intent on interpreting or even matching the music, yet the two seemed to exist in a perfect equilibrium in which it was possible to devote equal attention to both. The man from the first scene, now wearing the branch on his head, turned back to discover that a woman with a mournful face an a shellacked swoop of icy white hair had appeared on the side of the stage. The woman moved perpendicular to the path of the man, and the man began his slow journey back to where he had started. The two seemed destined not to meet, but there was tremendous tension in their tentative approach. A tree with roots, perhaps reminiscent of Yggdrasil, hung suspended over the stage. The man disappeared and a child made his way to the front of the stage extension where he discovered a series of white building blocks beneath a trap door. 

For the third section – accompanied by Pärt’s setting of the Miserere – the white screen at the back of the stage was lowered to reveal a matrix of lights; the man (now clothed in a shirtless, lapel-less suit) returned with a ladder and, in a wonderfully Wilsonian moment of stage magic, placed it so that it stood upright at an odd angle, apparently attached to nothing. A young boy and a young girl went to stand in the frame of a house, and their doppelgängers appeared with wooden machine guns. The woman from the second section began walking toward the front of the stage extension; the concentrated sadness still engraved upon her face seemed to imply that whatever was going on behind her could only have tragic consequences. Although the events on stage resisted strict interpretation, they seemed to allude to a sudden and decisive end to a very brief golden age. 

Throughout the evening it was impossible to separate the images from the moods conjured by Mr Pärt’s music. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performed Adam’s Lament with tremendous concentration and quiet rapture, capturing its gentle swells and constant sways while retaining the solemn essence of Silouan’s text. Mr Kaljuste’s unerring sense of the momentum beneath the deceptively placid surfaces of Mr Pärt’s music turned the second section of Tabula rasa into the evening’s most entrancing passage; the solo violin parts, performed by Sayako Kusaka and Johannes Jahnel, and the prepared piano of Angela Gassenhuber were given performances of distinguished restraint, rising only occasionally above the intricate textures of the string orchestra. After the monolithic intensity of the first pieces, the concluding Miserere seemed a more episodic work, although Mr Kaljuste fashioned the disparate sections into a compelling reflection of the sadness unfolding on stage. 

Adam’s Passion told nothing as straightforward as a story, nor did Mr Wilson’s images seem intended even as an impressionistic interpretation of Mr Pärt’s compositions. For much of the evening, music and action seemed subtly detached from one another, as if Mr Wilson was unwilling to impose too much of his own imagery onto works that already had such a profound inner life of their own. Yet there were very few moments when the visual and musical elements didn’t benefit from their close proximity to one another, and when the two locked together perfectly, Adam’s Passion was able to evoke a sense of mystery beyond conventional understanding. 


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