By Anne E. Johnson
NEW YORK – The words “The Creation” were projected in all-caps on panels of diaphanous white cloth draped across the stage of the Rose Theater on July 19. Thus began the North American premiere of Carlus Padrissa’s production of Haydn’s The Creation at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival.
This avant-garde staging of the 1798 oratorio was described in festival artistic director Jane Moss’ program note as being “in keeping with Mozart’s spirit of innovation and creativity.” While Mozart and Haydn would have scratched their heads at the modern science on display – both in the technology used to create the effects and in the thematic references to DNA, the Big Bang, and fetal sonograms – they might have appreciated Padrissa’s vision.
The artistic director and set designer, who first presented this conceptualization with his Catalan theater company La Fura dels Baus in 2017 in Aix-en-Provence, calls the piece “a balancing reconciliation between Haydn and DNA.” Asked to expound in a published interview, he pointed to “Chaos,” the famous opening of The Creation, in which Haydn lets the orchestra stew in unresolved dissonances until the chorus sings “Und es ward Licht” (And there was light) on a massive major triad. Says Padrissa, “He was over 100 years ahead of the discovery of the Big Bang, and his work contains the DNA of life in our universe.” Fair enough, and I would add that Haydn’s programmatic primordial soup was also 100 years ahead of its time, musicologically speaking.
There’s nothing ordinary about this work, including its libretto. The text is a mash-up of Milton’s Paradise Lost (the happy “Paradise Found” section, anyway), the Book of Genesis, and the Psalms, possibly woven together in English by one Thomas Linley and passed on to Haydn’s impresario in England, Johannes Salomon, who gave it to Haydn, who showed it to wealthy Austrian music enthusiast Gottfried van Swieten, who then translated it into German and urged Haydn to turn it into an oratorio. Haydn set the text in both languages.
With all the hubbub about the onstage cranes, the 36 huge helium balloons, the dozens of iPads, and other gizmos in this production, it might be easy to forget that The Creation was conceived by Haydn as a concert piece for chorus, three soloists, and orchestra. Since its premiere, Padrissa’s version has been conducted by Laurence Equilbey, who co-commissioned it (along with the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg) for her own period-instrument ensemble, Insula Orchestra. The chorus was Equilbey’s vocal group, accentus. And shining brighter than any iPad screen or LED bulb was Haydn’s music, almost incredible in its range of power and intricacy.
But the visuals often threatened to take over. The whole time chaos was turning to light in the introduction, tenor Robin Tritschler hung from a crane, waiting for his turn to sing as the archangel Uriel. Costumed (by Clara Sullà) in stiff brown cloth that made him look like a cross between a sprite and a soldier, Tritschler jumped slightly as the crane began to lower him none too smoothly. But his delicate singing made up for the jerky mechanism. Tritschler’s “Nun schwanden vor dem heiligen Strahle” (Now vanish before the holy beams) as well as his other arias exhibited a surprising intimacy, given the cosmic size and meaning of the work.
Once Tritschler reached the stage floor, the ring surrounding him that had seemed bejeweled with rectangular gems turned out to be set with iPads, which the choristers collected and kept for the entire performance. When they sang, the tablets were their sheet music. When they were moving around as huddled masses (representing what Padrissa describes as a “parallel world” of wandering refugees) or illustrating soloists’ lyrics, the iPad screens were turned outward (tablet networks by Iglor Soluciones Audiovisuales Avanzadas S.L.). At one point the iPads became bottles that the refugees filled with water — i.e., pixels filling their screens — from a projected waterfall; another time, the screens showed silhouetted babies in the womb as the choristers held the tablets to their abdomens.
Bass-baritone Thomas Tatzl sang as the archangel Raphael and as Adam, the first man. His acting in both body and voice was effective, although his lower register was not equal to the challenging score. He spent much of his time onstage in an aquarium, up to his waist and then his neck in water. He was even expected to sing (without sputtering) mere seconds after having his head underwater.
The supernova in this musical firmament was soprano Christina Landshamer. As the archangel Gabriel, she was adorned in silver robes with white fairy lights twinkling inside them. She had rods extending from each hand to increase her angelic wingspan. And when she sang, she was an angel indeed. Her lilting, 6/8-metered “Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün” (With verdure clad the fields appear) was exquisite, making it impossible not to think of Mozart. And along with flutist Jocelyn Daubigney, Landshamer brought the newly created nightingale charmingly to life in “Auf starkem Fittiche schwinget sich” (On mighty pens uplifted soars). She also sang the role of Eve.
Equilbey led her orchestra and singers with a steady, supportive hand, keeping tempos moderate and shaping purposeful and sensitive phrases. There were some intonation problems – most notably during the unusual ritornello for Raphael’s arioso section “Seid fruchtbar alle” (Be fruitful all), featuring arco double bass and cello – but overall the Insula captured the shock and wonder of the birth of the cosmos. At first the pairing of early-music timbres with digital imagery seemed discordant, but my mind adjusted. The chorus had a balanced sound that served it especially well for the oratorio’s magnificent fugal movements.
Padrissa’s immigrant angle was intriguing but frustratingly underdeveloped. The parallel between the creation of everything and the migration of refugees was never entirely clear. And there were other problematic aspects to this complicated production. For one thing, it was hard not to worry that the live singers hanging or floating onstage might be injured at any moment. There were also extraneous, non-Haydn-related noises: Some were intentional, such as coins dropped onto the stage for immigrants to chase, and some accidental, such as one giant balloon that popped unintentionally and another that got away and clanged against a brace of lights.
Despite these issues, Padrissa’s stagecraft brought about plenty of moving moments, from the roiling clouds of space dust projected onto the drapes during “Chaos” (video designed by Marc Molinos) to the few seconds of orchestral silence as the immigrants passed through a brutal security checkpoint. And it was a joy to hear the entire oratorio performed without an intermission or applause interruptions (at least on the night I attended).
The final section with Adam and Eve was the most successful in melding Padrissa’s visual language with Haydn’s sound. The creation of the first two humans occurred in the aquarium, where Tatzl and Landshamer were completely submerged, born fully-formed like creatures in Frankenstein’s lab. As they sang the duet “Holde Gattin, dir zur Seite” (Dear wife, at thy side), each held a huge bunch of balloons, which gave the illusion that they were soaring among the clouds, even though the singers were actually grounded for a change.
Toward the end, when the choristers as immigrants made their way to join Adam and Eve, they wandered with their balloons out into the aisles. The choral sound coming from among us gave the thrilling sensation that we were all equal parts of this created universe. Which, of course, we are.
Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.