Separate Stages, Two Results For Myths As Opera

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A scene from Jörg Widmann’s ‘Babylon’ at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin.
(Photo by Arno Declari)

BERLIN – Operas based on ancient myth might seem a difficult sell in an age of fast entertainment. Not at the state operas of Berlin and Vienna. Featured in March were a new version of Jörg Widmann’s Babylon at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and Manfred Trojahn’s Orest at the Wiener Staatsoper.

The 45-year-old Widmann, whose Partita received its American premiere by the Boston Symphony in March, is one of the best-known German composers of his generation, while his compatriot Trojahn, 69, has mostly been performed in the German-speaking world. In an age when many contemporary operas receive world premieres and then fall into obscurity, it is encouraging that both these works should receive prominent revivals. And yet neither offers a revelation about the future of the art form.

Babylon premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2012 to largely negative reviews, particularly for the libretto by philosopher and public intellectual Peter Sloterdijk. In what should stand as an allegory for modern society and its intercultural tensions, the story line revolves around the seduction of a Jewish exile, Tammu, by the Babylonian priestess (and ancient Mesopotamian sex goddess) Inanna. Further characters include the Soul (a guiding spirit for Tammu) and a Scorpion Man who opens and closes the opera.

Charles Workman as Tammu and Susanne Elmark as Inanna in ‘Babylon.’ (Declair)

At the suggestion of Staatsoper general music director Daniel Barenboim, Widmann wrote a new version for the company that includes cuts and additions to both libretto and score. This Berlin edition, seen at the March 2 premiere, clocks in at 130 minutes, or about half an hour less than the original. It also thins out orchestral textures while including a glass harmonica, which adds an ethereal sheen and is particularly striking in a new aria for the character of Euphrat (the river Euphrates) after she causes a flood.

The score and the staging by Andreas Kriegenburg, meanwhile, make the stand-off between the Babylonian and Jewish choruses more explicit than the Munich production (staged with an imaginative, at times fairy-tale aesthetic by the Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus). The fourth of seven tableaux includes a lengthy prayer scene based on Old Testament texts, suddenly introducing a sarcastic tone and leading to the outburst of Tammu and the Jewish chorus, “Shame on Israel!”

The new dialogue and appearance of the chorus in modern religious dress (costumes by Tanja Hofmann) may make the original plot less convoluted, but they also undermine the mythical dimensions of the original libretto and make no more than a trite (not to mention potentially anti-Semitic) statement about world politics. The aesthetic was all the more problematic given the resemblance of sets (by Harald Thor) to Kriegenburg’s recent production of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots for the Opéra Bastille, in which he emphasized the topic of religious extremism.

John Tomlinson lent authority to the King of Priests. (Declair)

Just as in Paris, the open rooms of a scaffolding (here an urban tenement) reveal the battling factions intermingling, while art relics such as the fragmented torso of Michelangelo’s David indicate the fall of Western civilization. More intriguing was the depiction of the underworld (where Inanna rescues Tammu after he is killed in a Babylonian sacrificial ritual), thanks to excellent costumes by Hofmann.

But for all the forces in this new production – the large choruses evoking grand opera, the orgiastic swarm of bodies alongside Inanna in the first tableau, the virtuosic orchestral writing – Babylon falls short of becoming a fresh addition to the operatic canon. The libretto’s allusions to such composers as Wagner (the potion that Inanna gives to Tammu) and Monteverdi (her Orpheus-like mission) are clever but antiquated, while the score teems with ideas but meanders between post-Romanticism and stark modernism.

To be sure, Widmann is a master of his craft, from the celesta and harps that accompany Inanna to the detuned winds that introduce the figure of Death. The opera also includes memorable melodies such as the “Song of Inanna” that are often undermined by harsh dissonance in the orchestra. The addition of live electronics to the final tableau, however, hardly resolves the aesthetic conflict within the score.

Otto Katzameier as Death in ‘Babylon.’ (Declair)

Christopher Ward — stepping in for Barenboim, who canceled, citing eye surgery — led an admirable performance, although textures could have been more taut in passages such as the carnival-like romp of the fifth tableau. Charles Workman was a steadfast Tammu but struggled with high notes, Susanne Elmark a seductive if under-powered Inanna.

Mojca Erdmann brought a timbre both bright and lush to the high-lying lines of the Soul, while John Tomlinson lent authority to the King of Priests. Marina Prudenskaya gave a standout performance as Euphrat, and the boy soprano Arne Niermann provided lyrical relief in the fourth and final tableaux.

In Vienna, Trojahn’s Orest was realized with a first-rate cast and staging. It is slightly ironic that the production, seen on March 21, should be such a success: The opera was chosen by the company only when the octogenarian Krzysztof Penderecki was unable to finish the commission for a new work.

Orest was not unknown to Vienna’s audiences, having been performed at the Neue Oper Wien in 2014. It might have been interesting to pair the approximately 75-minute score with another opera to create more inventive programming — perhaps Strauss’ Elektra, to which it stands as a kind of contemporary pendant. Nevertheless, the house makes a convincing case for a work that along with the two Vienna productions has also been seen in Amsterdam (where it premiered in 2011), Zurich, and Hamburg.

Evelyn Herlitzius sang the role of Elektra in Trojahn’s ‘Orest.’
(Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)

Trojahn makes direct references to Strauss’ one-act opera while also evoking Berg’s Wozzeck as he explores the bloodthirsty madness of Orest — egged by on his sister Elektra — following the murder of their mother Clytemnestra. If the score is tradition-bound in content and style, it maintains its grip through resourceful orchestral writing.

The pulsating, vengeful textures that accompany Orest are contrasted with the elegiac lines of Helena (of Troy). Trojahn’s instrumentation can be lush and post-Romantic or transparent and economical, dying down to only low strings after Orest takes his last victim.

The director Marco Arturo Marelli, a regular fixture at the Staatsoper who creates his own sets and lighting, confines the action to a tunnel-like, concrete chamber where dream and reality intermingle. The ghost of Clytemnestra appears in a wedding dress to Orest in the opening scene, while a golden swing serves for both Apollo’s descent and the elevation of Helena into heaven after Orest attacks her with an ax.

Costumes by Falk Bauer draw upon ancient motifs while also introducing bold, contemporary elements. Apollo appears with a bow and arrow that he hands to Orest in the final scene, while Helena is all 1950s glamour, with a shimmering gold dress and platinum blonde wig. The orchestral intermezzo of chirping woodwinds, raw percussion, and grotesque brass that precedes Scene Five is visualized with a throng of men wearing leather suits and Roman soldier’ helmets.

Thomas Johannes Mayer sang Orest in Trojahn’s opera. (Pöhn)

The production gathers international soloists with ensemble members for a lineup that leaves little to be desired. Thomas Johannes Mayer brings a full-blooded baritone and convincing air of hysteria to Orest. And yet the fierce Elektra of Evelyn Herlitzius, who has given legendary performances of the character in Strauss’ opera, is even more frightening.

Soprano Laura Aikin combines rich tones and rock-solid technique as Helena, and Audrey Luna — best known for her appearances in the operas of Thomas Adès — delivers characteristically silvery, neck-breaking high notes to the role of Hermione, who snaps Orest out of his murderous streak. In his house debut as Apollo/Dionysus, Daniel Johansson convinces with a seductive tenor and noble presence, while ensemble member Thomas Ebenstein is a poised Menelaos.

Contemporary music specialist Michael Boder leads the house orchestra in a reading that shows off the musicians’ affinity for thick Romantic textures but also delivers chamber vignettes with focus and dramatic tension. After Babylon, Orest was refreshing for its non-politicized reading of both myth and musical history. But given the mandate for today’s opera houses to attract younger audience members, it might be important to consider how to make these ancient tales – timeless as they are – even more immediate.

Orest continues at Wiener Staatsoper through April 13. For tickets and information, go here.

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.

A scene from Manfred Trojahn’s ‘Oreste’ at the Vienna State Opera. (Pöhn)