Morgen und Abend – Fascinating or vacuous?

18 Nov

As you’ll have gathered from the headline, I’m in two minds about Georg Friedrich Haas’s new opera.  I saw its second performance at the ROH on 17th November.  I was glad to be there and, particularly, to be introduced to Haas’s music.  Whether the piece actually says anything or is a viable piece for the opera house strikes me as much more debatable.

The opera is, apparently, a meditation on life and death, based on a novel by the Norwegian novelist, Jon Fosse. We begin with the protagonist, Johannes’s birth – as his father, Olai (Klaus Maria Brandauer speaking English in a comedy German accent), waits outside repeating, in English, quite a small number of sentences.  After 20 minutes and yet another repetition of “nothing’s going on”, you’re tempted to shout out “too right”.

We are then transported to the time of his death as he sees his dead wife, Erna and his dead friend Peter and finds himself unable to talk to his daughter, Signe. The singing is in German. Again, there is little more than the repetition of the same sentences. There’s not a plot to speak of. I’m not even sure that there’s any development or even the exploration of ideas. Certainly no car chases.  On the other hand, there is a sense of reflection, of a picture of a life through the crucial people in it.  It’s more like looking at a picture than at a stage work.
Haas’s music is extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve heard such piercingly immediate sounds. It feels as though there’s a background of undulating sounds – I was reminded of the sea, of an aircraft revving up its engine and then calming it down and of wind, interspersed with piercing, achingly beautiful brass sounds, violent percussion. The vocal lines are clear and grateful. You feel that, despite the text, there’s a sense of movement, of ideas and exploration.

And yet, despite its short length (only ninety minutes), I felt it outstayed its welcome. There isn’t enough going on onstage to justify this length of time of this music. I do wonder whether this piece would stand a second visit. While I could imagine becoming entirely engrossed and fascinated by it, particularly by the music, I could also imagine getting very bored indeed and thinking that this was no more than Emperor’s new clothes.

It’s rather wonderfully done. Graham Vick directs with the assurance and certainty that you’d expect. Richard Hudson’s off-white set and costumes looked superb and caught the elegiac, reflective, gentle nature of the piece. The movements of cast, the placing of the few props looked perfect. The only thing which jarred was the bright light shining directly into the audience at the end. You didn’t need it. Similarly, in the pit, Michael Boder conducted compellingly and the orchestra played, apparently, with complete accuracy and conviction.

Christoph Pohl was clear, beautifully sung, entirely convincing as Johannes, who was absolutely clear about the different relationships and made a very sympathetic, believable, thoughtful figure. I’d love to hear him sing Wozzeck. Sarah Wegener was immediate, clear, emotional as his daughter Signe and joyous as the midwife. Will Hartmann as Peter and Helena Rasker as Erna struck me as peripheral but sang with commitment and real beauty.

I’ve had many worse evenings and seen many less engaging operas. But I really don’t see this committed, reflective, offbeat and, ultimately, rather self-indulgent piece as inspiring many newcomers to give more operas a try. I suspect its future is in the concert hall and it certainly doesn’t do much to dispel ideas that opera is an elite art-form for a minority.  I’d recommend a visit, though.

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