Glanert’s ‘Oceane’: A Water Nymph Out Of Her Depth

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Detlev Glanert’s new opera, ‘Oceane,’ tells of the water nymph Oceane (Maria Bengtsson), who is loved by Martin (Nikolai Schukoff) the moment he encounters her, but she cannot bear earthly life. (Photos by Bernd Uhlig, Deutsche Oper Berlin)

BERLIN – As Oceane arrives on the dance floor, her mere presence brings the aristocrat Martin von Dircksen to a stammer. Wind machine, harps, and a faint drone of strings interrupt the polka that has gathered the hotel guests.

Detlev Glanert’s Oceane, which premiered at the Deutsche Oper on April 29, adapts an unfinished fragment, Oceane von Parceval, by the 19th-century German writer Theodor Fontane about a water nymph who is unable to connect emotionally with the human world. Glanert sees the story as an allegory for the exclusionary tendencies of a society or, specifically, German culture.

‘Oceane’ shares roots with ‘Rusalka’ and ‘Pelléas et Melisande.’

Accordingly, the director Robert Carsen has set the action at the beginning of the 20th century – a suggestion of impending catastrophe on the European continent, he says in his program notes. The production is as elegant as the score and libretto are expertly crafted, yet the two-act work emerges as a more cerebral than emotionally shattering portrait.

Glanert, who has now penned his 12th opera, strikes the same balance between tradition and individual expression as his teacher, the late Hans Werner Henze, alluding with clear dramatic intent to the past while revealing through dense contrapuntal textures and angular vocal lines that a post-Romantic German operatic tradition is alive and well. The overture evolves from the a cappella vocalizations of Oceane (Maria Bengtsson) to undulating arpeggios that now recall Mendelssohn’s overture The Hebrides, now the ethereal orchestral writing of Debussy.  

And yet the solo numbers for Oceane favor unsettling textures that – while portraying her unease away from the sea – make it difficult to empathize with the plight of the fragile, estranged woman in Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s libretto. The part of Pastor Baltzer (Albert Pesendorfer), who considers Oceane a manifestation of evil, is meanwhile tellingly underscored by raw percussion and brass instruments (most notably, a tuba) whose effects are at once ominous and ironic.

Pastor Baltzer (Albert Pesendorfer) considers Oceane a manifestation of evil and turns his people against her.

But for all the clear musical portraits, the music could create more psychological depth around both Oceane and Martin (Nikolai Schukoff), who after declaring his love is left with nothing more than a letter in which she states, “I am lacking something in order to bear [being] on this Earth.” As timeless as the story is (program notes point to Dvorak’s Rusalka and Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande as adaptations of the same myth), the opera does not provoke a new understanding about the trope of a female character who is incompatible with an essentially male-dominated society.

Costumes by Dorothea Katzer clearly depict the homogeneity of the seaside gathering, with gray and black tones for everyone but Oceane, who appears in a shimmering silver gown. Video by Robert Pflanz is effectively deployed to create an ocean that laps in the background of the resort hotel throughout the opera; it is particularly striking against a stormy sky in Oceane’s Act One solo number, “Ah, er ist fort.” Yet the close-up portraits of Bengtsson that persist during orchestral interludes, merging her with the sea in a final image, are clichéd at best. When she is present onstage, however, her performance is powerful in its vocal stamina and physical elegance.

Powerful as Oceane, soprano Maria Bengtsson dominated the stage with vocal stamina and physical elegance.

Schukoff sang the role of Martin with an earnest, ringing tenor, while Pesendorfer was an appropriately staid but menacing pastor. House ensemble member Nicole Haslett performed with rock-solid coloratura as the coquettish guest Kristina, and Christoph Pohl was a steadfast Dr. Albert Felgentreu, her fiancé and Martin’s sidekick. Doris Soffel brought an appropriately mature, sentimental touch to the hotel owner Madame Luise, and long-time ensemble member Stephen Bronk was her faithful servant, George.

Music director Donald Runnicles led the house orchestra in a detailed but spacious reading, with careful phrasing in transparent, chamber-like episodes and textures that were at times ethereal, at times full-bodied for passages that illustrate the sea. The house chorus was expertly choreographed by Carsen to become a walking portrait of the bourgeoisie.

It was heartening when the Deutsche Oper’s faithful audience lavished applause on the team — particularly Glanert, who appeared with Treichel at his side — and yet one couldn’t help but wonder if the opera’s anti-bourgeois message had become lost in the viewers’ enthusiasm. The work has not been commissioned beyond the walls of this former West Berlin house, and so its impact — at least thus far — has been limited to a well-heeled crowd.

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.