Life Events: Pierrot lunaire & La voix humaine at the Staatsoper Hamburg

Schoenberg – Pierrot lunaire

Die Frau – Anja Silja, Nicole Chevalier, Marie-Dominique Ryckmanns

Poulenc – La Voix humaine

Elle – Kerstin Avemo

Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg / Kent Nagano.
Stage directors – Luis August Krawen, Georges Delnon.

Staatsoper, Hamburg, Germany.  Saturday, October 24th, 2020.

One can only imagine the royalties the publishers of La voix humaine are currently enjoying.  Given the sanitary situation this year, there has been a proliferation of performances of Poulenc’s monologue and among these, this new production at the Staatsoper Hamburg, coupled with Pierrot lunaire, certainly looked to be one of the most interesting.  The presence of Kent Nagano, who truly excels in the music of the last century in the pit, alongside a group of singers representing both operatic history and the new generation, promised much for this evening at the house on the Dammtor.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

This was very much an evening of two parts – with each work confided to a different director.  Similarly, the orchestra was in the pit for the chamber ensemble of the Schoenberg, while for the Poulenc, the stage curtain rose, with exclamations of surprise from the audience, to reveal the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester on stage for the Poulenc, while Kerstin Avemo sang and acted her role in front of them.  In La voix humaine, Georges Delnon gave us a staging that was naturalistic and realistic, Luis August Krawen gave us something very different for Pierrot lunaire.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The Pierrot was less a conventional operatic staging and more of an art installation.  The performance of Schoenberg’s melodrama combined three elements – the instrumental ensemble in the pit, three vocalists varying in age from veteran to youth exclaiming the text, and Krawen’s own video.  The video illustrated a man’s journey from youth to old age, all while the vocalists descended in age, starting with the 80-year young Anja Silja, through Nicole Chevalier, to the exciting young talent of Marie-Dominique Ryckmanns.  At times, the video imagery reflected the sung text, at others it departed from it.  We saw a piece of cloth illustrating the Washerwoman, of the constant presence of the moon, at one point seen as a distant vista over an icy plan occupied by dancing figures wearing burqas.  The protagonist bore a physical resemblance to Krawen himself – was this an autobiographical musing?  Or was it something deeper.  Each vocalist perched herself on the edge of the stage, costumed in a simple black shift, the effect created by the costume (Marie-Thérèse Jossen) redolent of the traditional image of a Pierrot.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The net result was something of a visual overload.  More than accentuating and amplifying the impact of the music and text, I must admit to spending more time wondering how the images were connected – was this the journey of a modern-day Pierrot, accompanied by his handsome gentleman companion?  The idea of having three different vocalists, each in a different stage of her life, compared with the reverse journey on screen, was actually quite intriguing.  Yet, while it was entertaining, this Pierrot lunaire left me with considerably more questions that answers.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

La voix humaine was considerably more conventional in approach, though here again we were left with more questions than answers.  Who was ‘elle’?  As the curtain rose, we saw her shooting someone on the ground (which made her mention of not being able to handle a revolver an added mystery).  As the performance developed, she took off her suit and performed her monologue in a little black dress, at one point putting on a dog colour, before removing it and finally switching back to the suit at the end of the monologue.  Perhaps Delnon was suggesting that this was all staged, that those dated mentions of an operator connecting calls, or a random woman listening in, are all part of the fantasy.  At times, Avemo’s Elle, would intone the text into a microphone, while spotlights shone into the audience, suggesting that we were voyeurs into a woman’s most crucial hour.  The lighting (Bernd Gallasch) was also used intelligently, using the on-stage orchestra as much as part of the events we saw as the protagonist herself.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Avemo had clearly worked hard on internalizing the part.  She sang it in decent French, rendering the bilingual English-German surtitles superfluous.  Perhaps some of the diphthongs could have been more Gallicized, but on the whole, she had clearly worked hard on the text and she made it more than comprehensible.  Avemo sang her music in a bright, creamy soprano.  To be somewhat churlish, I did long for her to employ a wider variety of tone colours, but she brought quite a harrowing, almost brittle tone, to her declaration of ‘je n’avais pas le courage de mourir seule’.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

In Pierrot lunaire, it was a privilege to witness operatic history with Silja on stage in her eighty-first year.   She declaimed the text with such seasoned charisma that it was hard not to be taken with it.  Of course, the registers parted company in her soprano a long time ago, but the range of colour she used to illustrate the text, from a smoky chestiness to a bright yet musky soprano, was most impressive.  There was much to learn about how to hold a stage and colour a text in Silja’s assumption.  Chevalier brought a rounded soprano to her music.  She kept the text forward at all times, again using it to colour the words, her ripe instrument able to exploit a wide range of colour.  Ryckmanns was a very interesting discovery.  She is the owner of a bright, crystalline soprano and she made the sprechgesang scintillate over the instrumental texture, at times seemingly echoing and amplifying the sound of the band, at others taking wing, yet always seeming to make the music sound both utterly fresh and revolutionary at the same time.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The consistent thread through the evening was Nagano’s conducting.  He led the Schoenberg with his customary ear for texture, allowing the various instrumental combinations to register both with almost forensic precision and warmth of sound.  The Poulenc found that ideally blend of soupy romanticism, combined with illustrative wit and, when the music emerged from the other end of the phone, even jazzy exuberance.  The players of the house orchestra responded to him with playing at the highest level, exploiting a world of colour in the orchestrations.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

This made for an interesting evening in the theatre.  Musically, there was a lot to admire, not least in the Pierrot trio and Avemo’s commanding account of her role.  Both the conducting and the orchestral playing gave a great deal of pleasure.  As for the staging, I must admit to leaving with more questions than answers – not necessarily a bad thing.  While Krawen’s visuals were always interesting, perhaps on a second viewing it might become clearer how they relate to the work’s text.  Delnon gave us a view of a woman’s breakdown, yet never quite let us set aside any doubt that it was staged or indeed lived.  That said, to experience an evening of a quality this high in these troubled times is reason to celebrate and thanks are due to the Staatsoper Hamburg for giving us the opportunity to appreciate both of these works.

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