Dark Night of the Soul: Gurrelieder at De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam

Schoenberg – Gurrelieder

Waldemar – Burkhard Fritz
Tove – Catherine Naglestad
Waldtaube – Anna Larsson
Bauer – Markus Marquardt
Klaus Narr – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Sprecher – Sunnyi Melles

Kammerchor des ChorForum Essen, Koor van De Nationale Opera, Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest / Marc Albrecht.
Stage director – Pierre Audi.

De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.  Sunday, April 29th, 2018.

The premiere of Pierre Audi’s staging of Gurrelieder in 2014 marked the first staged production of Schoenberg’s cantata.  For its first revival, most of the original cast was reassembled and joined by a new Tove, Catherine Naglestad.  It’s a challenging piece for the soloists – it requires them to sing over a supersized band – and Waldemar’s role in particular requires a tenor with a baritonal extension, in addition to the stamina to support some punishing, high-lying writing.  The choral writing also involves some complex, multipart textures, as well as a minefield of chromaticism that can test even the most well-disciplined choruses.

Photo: © Marco Borggreve

As a cantata, this is a work where characters sing about others rather than necessarily to them.  To that extent, although there is a narrative thread that unites the work, it could be said that the structure itself is somewhat anti-dramatic and, certainly initially, one might wonder what there is to gain from staging it.  As one might expect, Audi gives us something that isn’t a conventional opera.  Characters are identifiably flesh and blood, but the relationship between them is intimated.  So much is communicated through a glance or a touch, rather than characters singing at each other.  Audi often manages to transcend the potential balance issues by often having singers at the front of the stage, addressing the audience, just when they need to ride the surging orchestral textures.  In another context, this kind of delivery might seem a disadvantage; here, it seems intimately married with the work and Waldemar and Tove’s doomed love.  Much is also communicated through the set (Christof Hetzer).  As the Waldtaube sings her lament, we see Waldemar trapped in a room covered in blood, desperately trying to understand and come to terms with that has happened.  Similarly, at the end of Part 1, the use of video (Martin Eidenberger) manages to show Waldemar’s castle disintegrating just as he loses what really matters to him.  Yet, what we are witness to is not just a love story.  We are taken through a man’s journey to the darkest place as he comes to terms what he has lost.  Audi also points to the end of an era.  When the work was premiered in 1913, Europe was on the brink of the Great War but also, in its high romanticism, Gurrelieder marks the bridge between the end of Schoenberg’s early style and his adoption of serialism.

Photo: © Marco Borggreve

Ultimately, the question remains of whether Audi’s Gurrelieder works as a staging and here, I think that it does.  Rather than a dramatization, Audi gives us an illustration of the work.  It feels of a piece with Schoenberg’s score – the sense of burgeoning love is there, as is the harrowing descent of a man into an alcohol-fuelled abyss.  It offers visually striking moments that seem ideally married to the score’s nocturnal tinta.  The evening culminated in a blaze of light that had overwhelming impact – the brightness of the sun combined with the glorious noise produced by the massed choruses.

Photo: © Marco Borggreve

We were given staggering singing by the Nationale Opera chorus, bolstered with guests from Essen.  That they were able to execute complex stage movements (including waving their swords in the air) and navigate Schoenberg’s intricate, multi-part writing is quite remarkable.  They sang the chorus ‘Der Hahn erhebt den Kopf zur Kraht’ offstage and the accuracy of the tuning was impeccable.  Perhaps the ladies were somewhat blowzy in their contributions to the closing chorus but the accuracy and precision of the gentlemen inspired admiration.

Photo: © Marco Borggreve

Waldemar is an ungrateful role.  It felt initially that Burkhard Fritz was holding his compact heldentenor back and there were a few places where the voice sounded a size too small, not quite able to ride the over the orchestra – and he is most certainly not the first Waldemar in that respect.  By his penultimate number, however, the desperate cries of ‘Tove’ sounded so secure where many before have run out of gas.  It isn’t the most glamourous sound but it’s robust and he definitely lasted the course.  Catherine Naglestad brought her unique brand of lyrical heroism to Tove.  It took her a little while to settle, the opening numbers sitting slightly under the note.  That said, she warmed up nicely and her ‘Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick’ was ecstatically soaring, culminating in a radiant high C.  Anna Larsson’s Waldtaube allowed her to exploit her familiar chocolatey bottom of complex depth and warmth.  The middle of the voice sounded a bit grainy now but the text was impeccably clear and she used a wide range of colours in the voice to illustrate it.

Photo: © Marco Borggreve

The text was indeed clear in the remainder of the cast.  Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a constant presence on stage as a mysterious figure, eventually revealed to be Klaus-Narr, his true nature becoming apparent as the evening progressed.  His tenor was healthily focused, everything sung off the text.  Markus Marquardt sang the Bauer’s music in a rustic, firm and resonant baritone.  It was a welcome choice to have a woman cast in the role of the Sprecher, as was the case at the premiere in 1913, and Sunnyi Melles was also given additional text from Jacobsen’s poetry to open Parts 1 and 3.  Her expressionistic, quite virtuosic delivery of the text found as much music in the text as the singers in the cast.  Indeed, the depths of pathos that she found in the line ‘nun ist auch das vorbei’ was deeply moving.

Photo: © Marco Borggreve

The Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest, played extremely well for Marc Albrecht.  The horns took a little while to find their best form – there were a few initial accidents at first.  The gossamer strings and the warmth of the winds gave much pleasure.  Albrecht seemed completely at home with the work, drawing out a seemingly unlimited palette of orchestral colour.  He managed to draw out an aching lyricism and combined it with a rhythmic precision that constantly lay below the surface, leading the music onwards, that I found particularly compelling.  He was always a sensitive accompanist to his singers, giving them a chance to ride over the waves of sound emerging from the pit.

Photo: © Marco Borggreve

This was an overwhelming afternoon in the theatre.  A remarkable visual and musical experience that brought the work to thrilling life, Audi and his cast giving us a true Gesamtkunstwerk.  We saw the harrowing descent of a man into the abyss and yet, despite that, we were left with hope.  Hope that with dawn comes a new beginning and maybe, just maybe, a chance for Tove and Waldemar to find happiness somewhere in a place far from shadowy danger.  Musically very good, and in many respects excellent, as well as visually impressive, this was an afternoon of music theatre that left me thrilled, moved and in awe of the glorious sound world of Schoenberg’s vision, realized by Audi and this fine cast.

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