Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Another Country

August 09, 2010

Mojca Erdmann, Virpi Räisänen, Julia Faylenbogen, Elin Rombo, Johannes Martin Kränzle Photo: Ruth Walz/Salburg Festival 2010

One of the star attractions of this year’s Salzburg Festival is the work of 58-year-old composer Wolfgang Rihm whose music is being featured in numerous settings including the world premiere of his latest opera Dionysus. The festival has pulled out all the stops under the banner “Kontinent Rihm.” As the program for these events attests, Rihm’s music is so varied and multifaceted, it is a continent of its own. While that geographic metaphor may or may not be an overstatement, it is true that I’ve had some fortunate opportunities to travel a remarkable, if compact, sampling of Rihm’s work in as little as two days. Rihm’s music has taken various forms over his highly productive and lauded career, but he has been firmly rooted in a European and typically atonal modernism throughout much of it. In more recent years, his works have had a higher and higher accessibility quotient that can be heard both in Dionysus as well as 2007’s Das Gehege, which premiered in Munich.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Riccardo Chailly with members of the Vienna Philharmonic
Photo: Wolfgang Lienbacher/Salzburg Festival 2010

On Saturday, there was a very short chamber performance of two string quartets, Nos. 5 and 10, from the Arditti quartet. Written almost 15 years apart, the two reflect changes in the composer’s attitude despite their common interest in structural issues. The No. 5 quartet is a single movement written in conjunction with two others, No. 6 and No. 7, to for a sort of meta-quartet when taken together as a set of three. Meanwhile, the No. 10 is a three-movement work in its own right that fades into existence with a quiet movement of simple pizzicato notes and dissipates in a similar fashion. The Arditti’s committed and technically superb performance showed the works in their best light and set the stage nicely for the following morning when Anne-Sophie Mutter appeared with the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Chailly with Rihm’s Gesungene Zeit or “Time Chant.” Like the tenth String Quartet, Rihm’s single movement violin concerto has a fascination with small quiet notes and gestures. He composed the piece specifically for Mutter who has made it a staple of her repertoire. It begins with a series of extremely high notes played slowly and very softly. It’s in a range that often trips up the best performers, and Mutter’s certainty about the material gives it a beauty even in the quietest and highest of registers. Rihm was welcomed here, as he has been everywhere in the festival, with warm and enthusiastic ovations.

Wolfgang Rhim with the Arditti Quartet (behind music stands
Photo: mine 2010

So it was no surprise to see the composer get such a positive response at the curtain call for the final performance of his latest opera, Dionysus, which I saw on Sunday. It’s subject is Friedrich Nietzsche who is identified only with the letter N in the libretto. Moreover, Rihm fashioned the text almost exclusively from Nietzsche’s poetic text Dionysos-Dithyramben. And while there are certain references to historical aspects of the philosopher’s real and imagined life, this is not a narrative piece. Instead, it’s a consideration of philosophical concepts and an imagined psychological profile. N is paired with an adversary/companion, Ein Gast (a guest), who will later become the god Apollo and flay N’s skin from his body. That skin then becomes a separate actor in the work re-enacting a much-repeated story surrounding Nietzsche’s decline into insanity where the philosopher physically intervened to stop the beating of a horse. It’s never exactly clear what is going on, and scenes rapidly shift from one to another in a dream-like fashion. The poetic language never describes action or emotional states as it does reference other psychological concepts. All of this is further abetted by director Pierre Audi and visual designer Jonathan Meese who cover the set in abstract shapes and mysterious images of faces and words referenced in the libretto. Perhaps my favorite image was at the start of Act III when a giant pair of yellow eyes stared out from behind a scrim featuring a black and white video image of patrons milling about the adjacent Karl Böhm Hall complete with reproduced crowd noise. It's a puckish image as if to glare at the audience and say "Having fun yet?"

The final scene from Rhim's Dionysus
Photo: Ruth Walz/Salburg Festival 2010

But Dionysus is not all about the clever gesture. The dense and beautiful music fills the two and a half hours with real purpose and drive. The opera was an ideal assignment for Ingo Metzmacher and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin who sounded warm and detailed in the midst of a very thorny score. The music is often like N's own rush of thoughts and dreams and it provides the most crucial link between the listeners and the action on stage. The soloists were all wonderful including Mojca Erdmann as Ariadne, one of the many women in the cast N seems unable to obtain in any way. N himself is sung by baritone Johannes Martin Kränze who has the guts to wear a tight bodysuit throughout much of the final scene. The guest is Matthias Klink who brings a tone that is alternately playful and regal to his part. And even when there is relatively little in Rihm's dreamscape to hold onto, the players project the utmost certainty and confidence. I must say that it was thoroughly enjoyable and impressive.

As a side note: Some may wonder why I liked Rihm's Dionysus so much compared to Lewis Spratlan's recent premiere in Santa Fe, Life is a Dream. It is true that the two works do have a number of musical techniques and stylistic issues in common. For instance, both operas rely on atonal compositional techniques, and both deal primarily with philosophical issues. For me the big difference is that Dionysus doesn't attempt to give you any of the answers. Rihm is perfectly content giving the audience layers and layers of puzzles to consider in working out his project for themselves. On the other hand Life is a Dream takes the exact opposite tact, assigning characters lengthy platforms to lay out positions and ideas over and over. Rihm relies on relatively short passages from Nietzsche's writing that are repeated in different contexts to different effects while Spratlan's characters have a lot of explaining to do often crushing the music aside. In Rihm's Dionysus the music often does the talking. The audience is then an active participant in trying to figure things out. What I like best about opera is when it engages you directly not just simply as a viewer, but as a thinker as well.



Having little interest in what goes on in Salzburg, I have just now gotten around to reviewing your postings, in reverse order. It's a bit awkward to have misspelled Rihm's name throughout, but I guess a copy editor is not part of a blogger's budget. (Givoanni, on the other hand, is just an unfortunate typo.) Gluck as the (almost missed) highlight is an amusing turn of events.
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