Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

La Belle Hélène

June 10, 2008

Annette Elster as Kellnerin and Otto Katzameier as Lars
Photo : B.Uhlig/Opera National de Paris 2008

With so much football excitement sweeping Austria at this moment, is it any surprise that a major artistic event from that region would have to leave town to get the space it needed? So it was at last night’s world premiere of Georg Friederich Haas’ new opera Melancholia at the Palais Garnier in Paris. It’s a good opera, with few surprises. In other words, it’s almost exactly what you’d expect from the sources behind its creation. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing mostly depends on how you feel about those sources to begin with. The libretto is from Norwegian author John Fosse and is based on the first part of his novel of the same name. The events concern 19th Century Norwegian landscape painter Lars Hertervig. He has left his homeland with the support of a local benefactor to study art in Düsseldorf. There, Lars has taken a room in the home of Frau Winckelmann whose daughter, Helene, he has fallen in love with. This is not a completely mutual feeling, but in any event, Helene’s mother and uncle have gotten wind of the relationship and have asked Lars to leave. Complicating matters, Lars clearly has a major mental illness, likely Schizophrenia, and has begun to come unglued, often hearing Helene’s voice and progressively crippled by his own delusions.

Haas at the premiere of his new opera
Photo : mine 2008

Lars leaves his room with his suitcases and has nowhere else to go other than the local pub, Malkasten, which he has never visited despite it being a regular hang-out for many of his art student peers. He arrives, only to be mocked by two peers, Alfred and Bodom, who insist that Helene is hiding in the bar waiting to meet him. He is fooled by this taunt of his peers and the bar’s waitress, but eventually leaves believing that Helene has called out to him to return to the Wincklemann’s. There he sees Helene, who is now clearly disturbed by his behavior, and her mother and uncle call the police to have his thrown out.

This is not cheery stuff and it's presented in a rather unadorned and highly repetitive stream-of-consciousness format in Fosse’s novel. Fosse wants to make points about the relationship between art, madness, and self-doubt but he keeps the narrative simple, entirely bound up in the ravings of a madman. Setting this libretto is Austrian Georg Friederich Haas. Haas is best known for a pair of chamber operas Nacht and Die schöne Wunde as well as a number of orchestral works over the last 20 or so years. Although his work is not well known in the U.S., he has enjoyed a much wider profile in the German speaking world especially his native Austria. He has done his time at IRCAM and racked up several regional composition prizes.

So with all of this, what do you think Melancholia might sound and look like? You’re exactly right. Director Stanislas Nordey, hews very closely to the text with an ultra-minimal black box set with virtually no props other than a giant white sheet, cum canvas, that acts as divider and implies elements of sets. It is manipulated from above moving achingly slowly throughout. It is the only source of white outside of the period costumes for Lars and Helene. Everyone else is in total black. Movement is slow and minimal throughout. The music owes a huge debt to Berg, Wozzeck in particular, and many of Haas' recent European predecessors including Boulez who was also present at the premiere. There is little melodic about it, but Haas does one thing that is very 19th century – he actually relies on the music to tell a large part of the story on its own. Capturing Lars' mental illness without setting his incessant ramblings is difficult. To deal with this, Haas does two things. First, he installs a chorus to represent some of Lars internal world that interacts with him throughout. Secondly he writes lines for virtually all of the orchestra’s instruments to mimic this process. Often, everyone is playing at the same time with seemingly rapid and uncoordinated flights of notes while Lars is singing. This creates the effect of Lars internal world being one where he is always trying to sort out all of the noise inside his head simply to hear his own voice. It’s a clever and I think rather sophisticated effect.

An extremely bad photo of Pierre Boulez at the premiere
Photo : mine 2008

Gerard Mortier, who was present for the premiere, and the Paris National Opera have wisely chosen to decrease the pressure around the premiere by involving a cast devoid of big names or huge international superstars. The music was performed by Klangforum Wien under the direction of Emilio Pomarico in his Paris debut. Lars is sung by a quite good Otto Katzameier, the only cast member not making his Paris debut. Melanie Walz’ Helene was clear and appropriately innocent. With these seemingly less than starry forces, the production is lean, mean and very effective. The production does fill you with a sense of the creeps and hopelessness. Given that this is precisely what you would expect from the source materials, that may be an unqualified success.

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Hey Brian,

Enjoying catching up on all your posts - you make me look like a weakling! Be sure you leave something in the tank for Saint Francois (and be sure you don't drink anything before Act II.) One small typo here: you say "owes a huge debut to Berg" where I'm sure you mean debt.

Enjoy the rest of your trip,
You are quite right, but I suppose debut could work in some senses. The questionable work in that case would be huge. Thanks for the heads-up.
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