BERLIN – To the sound of melting glissandi and teeming microtonal strings, a throng of survivors walks toward a black sun. In this apocalyptic vision, Earth has lost its power to another planet, and the characters can only stutter a chain of words that have lost their meaning.
Violetter Schnee (Violet Snow), a new opera by Swiss-born Austrian composer Beat Furrer that premiered at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden on Jan. 13, is as unsettling as it is timely. With global warming having already showed signs of throwing nature off course, a state of emergency in which people are snowed into their homes and scrounging the forest for food does not seem all that far-fetched.
In his eighth stage work, the composer brings not only his signature fragile textures that hover on the edge of existential crisis, but also declamatory brass and formal arcs that work well in a standard opera house. (Fama, perhaps his most famous score, is also large-scale, a piece of “heard theater” – Hörtheater in the original German – which premiered at the Donaueschingen Festival in 2005.)
Furrer has an ideal collaborator in librettist Klaus Händl, who adapted a prose text by Vladimir Sorokin into fragmented poetry that allows space for the music to unfold. The story derives inspiration from the science fiction novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and a quote from the didactic poem De rerum natura by Roman philosopher Lucretius in which “the walls of the universe suddenly abscond into immeasurable emptiness.”
The overture creates a multi-dimensional space ranging from fretful chromatic string and brass lines to raw percussion and an ethereal offstage chorus, immediately communicating a sense of impending danger. Over the course of the approximately two-hour opera, a gentle, shimmering sound in the strings represents the snow, which harbors both danger and warmth before it melts away in the final scene.
As vividly as the purely acoustic score submerges the listener in an other-worldly realm – now with howling overtones, now with shivering, stabbing textures – the bleak emotional landscape of Violetter Schnee verges on the monotone, however, particularly as performed without intermission. This where the realist staging of Claus Guth emerges as a virtue, creating lifelike characters that drive the drama home with a sense of urgency.
The quintet of singers is at once trapped in a modern home where they burn a table in order to survive and surreally submerged in the Bruegel painting Hunters in the Snow, an image that shaped Händl’s libretto. The plot opens in a museum (sets by Étienne Pluss), but that civilized space soon cedes to a deserted urban setting, where figures from the painting walk by in slow motion while the female lead, Silvia, has a nervous breakdown.
In a speaking part, Tanja (Martina Gedeck), who has already entered a realm of failed human communication when the opera begins, enters the home of the singers like a ghost. Video projections by Arian Andiel distill Hunters in the Snow into mere fragments and shadows by the final scene, while lighting designer Olaf Freese lends nice touches such as the LED frame around the proscenium in Silvia’s Scene 25 aria, in which she manically reminisces about performing with her viola to a packed audience.
The cast brings virtuosity and dramatic depth in equal measure. Soprano Anna Prohaska tirelessly attacks the stratospheric role of Silvia while creating a fully-dimensional character despite the fragmented grammar of the libretto: Flask and suitcase in hand, she is a walking image of modern decadence.
Georg Nigl brings a grounded presence and throaty drone to the role of Peter, the elderly member of the group. Ensemble member Elsa Dreißig is a coquettish, silver-voiced Natascha, Gyula Orendt a traumatized Jan, and Otto Katzameier an estranged Jacques.
The Staatskapelle delivers a vivid performance under Matthias Pintscher, while the offstage Vocalconsort Berlin adds a halo of sound at once ghostly and heavenly. Given its skillful coordination of text, music, drama, and chilling socio-political message, Violetter Schnee can only be ranked as a success story among contemporary operas.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.