The End Times: Antikrist at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Langgaard – Antikrist

Lucifer – Thomas Lehman
God’s Voice – Jonas Grundner-Culemann
The Echo of the Air of Mystery – Valeriia Savinskaia
The Air of Mystery – Irene Roberts
The Mouth Speaking Great Words – Thomas Blondelle
Despondency – Gina Perregrino
The Great Whore – Flurina Stucki
The Scarlet Beast – AJ Glueckert
The Lie – Andrew Dickinson
Hatred – Jordan Shanahan

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Hermann Bäumer.
Stage director – Ersan Mondtag.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, February 5th, 2022.

Rued Langgaard’s Antikrist is the dictionary definition of a rarity.  Unperformed in the composer’s lifetime, it took fifty years after it was completed for the work to receive its first performance in 1980.  This new staging, by Ersan Mondtag, is the first in the history of the Deutsche Oper Berlin.  It should have opened in March 2020, but we all know why it was postponed until now, when it finally had its premiere last week. 

Photo: © Thomas Aurin

For this production, the house used the new critical edition by Monika Wesemann, in a German translation by Inger and Walther Methlagl.  I would have liked to have heard the work in Danish, simply to see how the colour of the text lived alongside the colour of the orchestration; but given the work’s unfamiliarity, the decision to perform it in translation was understandable – particularly with the excellent clarity of diction throughout the cast.  Naturally, we are still in a time of plague and unfortunately the scheduled conductor, Stefphan Zilias, called in sick.  Given the unfamiliarity of the piece, the house was extremely fortunate to be able to call on the services of Hermann Bäumer, Music Director in Mainz, who arrived in Berlin earlier today and led a very assured performance on minimal rehearsal. 

Langgaard’s ‘church opera’ is a rather static work.  It comprises a series of scenes, reflections almost, where various manifestations of the Antichrist are presented, including the Great Whore, the Scarlet Beast, and Despondency.  Langgaard’s harmonic language is very much of the late romantic, redolent of Strauss and Wagner in particular, and the vocal lines are frequently declamatory in nature, the challenge heightened by the thickness of the orchestration.  Frequent interludes add additional musical interest.  It feels that the overall tempo in the work remains at andante, never really moving beyond that.  The work abounds in soupy string writing, frequent brass fanfares, with the presence of the organ adding additional warmth to the textures.

Perhaps as a result of the work’s fragmented, anti-dramatic even, nature, Mondtag’s staging was highly visual.  He places the action in a post-apocalyptic world – a taxi with an ad for Apocalypse Now drops from the flies, as does a huge naked figure of indeterminate gender.  The stage pictures are very much of a comic book aesthetic.  In an enlightening interview in the program book, Mondtag mentions that the ‘libretto is saturated with metaphors, images and allusions.  It inspires, but it is also difficult to stage the text as a unit of meaning that takes form’ (my translation).  This certainly feeds into a staging that does feel utterly musical in the way that it amplifies the soundworld emerging from the pit.  He makes frequent use of a corps of dancers to accompany the action.  While they added visual interest to the staging, it did make me wonder if their presence heightened the sense of a work lacking in a cogent dramatic thread, the staging proving to be merely illustrative, rather than providing us with the opportunity to engage with the content of the text.  Still, it’s a valid approach given the nature of the work.  The costumes (Mondtag himself with Annika Lu Hermann) were most impressive, and Mondtag most certainly has the ability to translate impressively vivid stage pictures into reality.

Photo: © Thomas Aurin

Bäumer led a reading that was tremendously assured, particularly given his extremely limited rehearsal with the cast and orchestra.  He was rewarded with superb playing from the orchestra, founded on an impressively thick pile carpet of string sound.  Intonation in the strings was excellent, apart from a few passages of rawness here and there.  The brass played with impressive precision, as did the all-important percussion.  Attack throughout was incredibly unanimous, not a single ragged entry all night.  In their brief interjections, Jeremy Bines’ chorus sang with rich, generous tone and impeccable blend. 

Photo: © Thomas Aurin

The quality of the solo singing also demonstrated the depth of talent available to the house.  Antikrist is effectively a series of cameos, with characters appearing for a scene or two and then moving on.  Thomas Lehman sang Lucifer with a firm yet grainy baritone, declaiming the text with authority.  As the Air of Mystery, Irene Roberts sang her music in a ruby-red mezzo.  The tone did have a tendency to discolour in the higher reaches, but it’s certainly an attractive instrument.  Valeriia Savinskaia brought her bright and easily-produced soprano to the role of the Echo of the Air of Mystery.  Clemens Bieber brought an ageless tenor to the role of the Mouth Speaking Great Words, a character with a big mouth spouting populist slogans – sound familiar?.  His vocalism was rock-solid, combined with impeccable textual awareness.  As Despondency, Gina Perregrino sang her music in a lyrical mezzo, although the voice did have a tendency to sit slightly under the note.  The Great Whore was sung by Fiurina Stucki, who sang with a lyric soprano of creamy beauty, one surely with a bright future in the big Strauss roles.  AJ Glueckert appeared to be having great fun on stage in the role of the Scarlet Beast.  His well-focused and penetrating tenor carried easily into the house.  Jordan Shanahan sang Hate in a big, burly baritone of impressive resonance.  While Andrew Dickinson brought a light, focused tenor to the role of the Lie, although as the scene progressed, Dickinson started to sound somewhat taxed by the tessitura, with pitching starting to head south.  Actor Jonas Grundner-Culemann was a brave stage presence as the Voice of God, wandering around the stage completely naked. 

As an opportunity to discover a rarity, thanks are due to the Deutsche Oper for not only giving us the chance to see it, but also to hear an ensemble, chorus and orchestra and the very highest level.  We were given a stage of intense visual interest, the work of someone with a vivid theatrical vision and the ability to present it on stage.  The evening was rewarded with a rapturous ovation by the Berlin public.

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