Alemania

Madness and Redemption

Jesse Simon
miércoles, 9 de febrero de 2022
Rued Langgaard: Antikrist © 2022 by Thomas Aurin Rued Langgaard: Antikrist © 2022 by Thomas Aurin
Berlin, domingo, 30 de enero de 2022. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Rued Langgaard: Antikrist. Ersan Mondtag, director. Thomas Lehman (Lucifer, Mystical Voice), Jonas Grundner-Culemann (Voice of God), Valeriia Savinskaia (Echo of the Spirit of Mystery), Irene Roberts (Spirit of Mystery), Thomas Blondelle (The Mouth Speaking Great Things), Gina Perregrino (Despondency), Flurina Stucki (The Great Whore), AJ Glueckert (The Scarlet Beast), Andrew Dickinson (The Lie), Jordan Shanahan (Hate). Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Stephan Zilias, conductor.
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One of the first operas to be cancelled in the earliest days of the Covid pandemic was the Deutsche Oper’s new production of Rued Langgaard’s Antikrist. It was, in some ways, a greater disappointment than the postponement of their new Ring cycle: while there was no chance of the Ring being lost in the shuffle of future season scheduling, it seemed entirely possible that Berlin audiences might be deprived of their chance to experience Langgaard’s sole work for the stage. Fortunately Antikrist was not forgotten and, at the end of January it had its belated première, nearly two years after its originally scheduled date; and while Ersan Mondtag’s visually provocative staging often seemed too eager to steal the spotlight, it was the majesty of Langgaard’s unique score that made for a memorable, often captivating evening. 

Antikrist was Langgaard’s only opera and his continued failure to secure a production led him to revise both the music and libretto on several occasions between 1923 – when the first version was completed – and 1944, when he effectively gave up on trying to have the work staged in any form (the version performed on this evening was the revised version of 1930, but in a German translation). Langgaard heard only extracts performed in his lifetime and the first complete staged production did not take place until 1999, nearly half a century after his death. 

Rued Langgaard: Antikrist. Ersan Mondtag, director. Stephan Zilias, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, January - 2022. © 2022 by Thomas Aurin / Deutsche Oper Berlin.Rued Langgaard: Antikrist. Ersan Mondtag, director. Stephan Zilias, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, January - 2022. © 2022 by Thomas Aurin / Deutsche Oper Berlin.

It is perhaps not difficult to understand why theatres of the 1920s and 1930s might have been reluctant: even a brief scan of the dramatis personae – Echo of the Spirit of Mystery? The Mouth Speaking Great Things? – suggests something far beyond the bounds of conventional opera, and the heavily allegorical content of the libretto is matched by an almost defiantly undramatic structure, in which personifications of abstract ideas spend their stage-time declaiming mystical pronouncements without much in the way of cause, effect or interaction. It is an opera only in so far as it doesn’t really belong to any other category of music or drama; and, as with so many works that disregard the limitations of genre, it was ignored in its time and forced to await rediscovery by a more sympathetic public. 

The work’s long obscurity is a great shame, as Antikrist is certainly one of the more underrated scores of early twentieth-century opera. Even if one views its dramatic challenges as deficiencies, there can be no denying the power of the music, which is remarkably broad-ranging in its modes of expression yet condensed into ninety minutes of visionary focus. At different points one can hear the opulent ecstasies of Strauss, the rhythmic vitality of Hindemith, even the emotional volatility of Mahler; yet Langgaard, like Scriabin before him, existed in his own self-constructed world of romantic mysticism, and for whatever stylistic debts he may have owed the music of his age, what emerged in Antikrist was a singular and intensely personal creation, closer to a secret ceremony than a work of theatre. 

It is by no means an easy work to stage, but director Ersan Mondtag seemed undaunted by its challenges, creating a frenzied world of savage imagery and memorably grotesque characters. The staging was visually cohesive and stylistically assured but it often seemed so certain of what it wanted to achieve that it failed to delve more deeply into the thematic possibilities of Langgaard’s text. Antikrist is indisputably an end-times fable in which irredeemable vice serves as a prelude to redemption, but it is also a critique of the rapidly modernising world in which Langgaard lived – a world which had rebounded from the horrors of the first world war into a short-lived age of innovation and excess – and its themes of despair and exhaustion in the face of a madness disguised as progress seemed especially relevant to the realities of the present day. 

Rued Langgaard: Antikrist. Ersan Mondtag, director. Stephan Zilias, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, January - 2022. © 2022 by Thomas Aurin / Deutsche Oper Berlin.Rued Langgaard: Antikrist. Ersan Mondtag, director. Stephan Zilias, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, January - 2022. © 2022 by Thomas Aurin / Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Mr Mondtag, however, seemed attuned solely to Antikrist’s apocalyptic side, and his staging set out to create a world of uncomfortable spectacle from which few subtleties were allowed to emerge. Perhaps its most obvious weakness was its over-reliance on dance. As there were no set changes, the instrumental preludes to each scene were given over to team of around a dozen dancers dressed in black body suits with accentuating smears of red, blue and white paint. Had they appeared solely during the intervals to dance us from scene to scene they might not have worn out their welcome, but they continued to twirl through the background of every scene, sometimes reacting to the characters, but just as often creating a parallel narrative of frenetic movement designed, it seemed, to draw our attention away from the relative stasis of the main action. They were clearly very skilled, but their constant movement soon grew exhausting, and the handful of moments during which they all disappeared from the stage came as a reprieve. 

As a visual creation the staging was undeniably successful: the set, a dark city street in perspective, was rendered in vivid colours and forceful brush strokes, and the costumes – often painted body suits, but occasionally more elaborate fleshy constructions – occupied their own space somewhere between expressionist cabaret and the distorted frozen screams of a Francis Bacon canvas. Yet beneath the staging’s relentlessness of movement, form and colour, one could sense a genuine unease, as though no one involved in the production knew quite what to make of Langgaard’s strange vision. After a while it became apparent that the parade of grotesqueries had been conceived not as a means of engaging with Langgaard’s (admittedly esoteric) spiritual concerns, but as a kind of distraction from what the director may have perceived as a monotonous libretto. Instead of unity of action and music, the evening came to feel more like two separate creations – Langgaard’s opera and Mondtag’s staging – vying for control of the stage. 

Rued Langgaard: Antikrist. Ersan Mondtag, director. Stephan Zilias, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, January - 2022. © 2022 by Thomas Aurin / Deutsche Oper Berlin.Rued Langgaard: Antikrist. Ersan Mondtag, director. Stephan Zilias, conductor. Berlin, Deutsche Oper, January - 2022. © 2022 by Thomas Aurin / Deutsche Oper Berlin.

The vocal performances were mostly very good, with Irene Roberts’ Spirit of Mystery and Thomas Blondelle’s Mouth Speaking Great Things emerging as the two most obvious highlights. Mr Blondelle was a last minute replacement for Clemens Bieber – his lines were delivered from a music stand next to the stage while an actor mimed the part – yet his assured reading found an engaging middle ground between elegant line and theatrical vigour that captured the full irony in the Mouth’s grand statements. As the Spirit of Mystery, Ms Roberts was impressive as much for her richness of tone as for the pervasive unease she brought to the character’s dreamlike pronouncements. She was accompanied in her scene by the Echo of Valeriia Savinskaia, whose lighter tone offered a pleasing contrast while evoking a similar mood of foreboding. 

The staging devoted so much of its attention to costume and movement that many of the singers were given comparably little to do. Nonetheless, Gina Perregrino brought a lively presence to the melancholy figure of Despondency, and Andrew Dickinson’s tightly coiled physical performance and piquant delivery made The Lie one of the more engaging figures in the second act. While the choir appeared only toward the end of the second act – their earlier appearances were offstage – their majestic closing chorus was among the evening’s finest moments. 

Stephan Zilias, who seemed fully attuned to the sonic possibilities in the score, guided the orchestra through a taut performance that remained attentive to Langgaard’s extravagant textures and quasi-mystical subject matter. If there is a central drama to be found in Antikrist it is less in the content of the individual scenes than in the gradual build from its meditative opening to its chaotic vision of a world consumed by madness, and Mr Zilias was able to render the two extremes with equal conviction: the prelude and the first scene had an almost hypnotic power, but the discordant intrusions and moments of excess in subsequent scenes were well handled, and the final half hour or so was kept at a remarkably high level of intensity. 

Over the past several seasons (pandemic interruptions notwithstanding) the Deutsche Oper have offered a consistently rewarding selection of ‘rediscoveries’ from the early part of the twentieth century – including Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg – that may have failed to find a large audience at the time they were written, but which contain enough intriguing music to merit our renewed attention. Antikrist was an inspired addition to that ongoing series, but also something of a missed opportunity: while the production was never less than engaging as a visual spectacle, it devoted far too much energy trying to deflect our attention from what it viewed as deficiencies in the text, when it could have been making a stronger argument that we were in the presence of a masterpiece. 

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