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Magret WOLF (b.1960)
Kirisk - The Boy and the Sea: an opera in three acts (2000)
libretto by composer after the novel by Tschingis Aitmatow
Sung in German
Kirisk - Katja Beer (sop)
Emraijin - Eduard Tumagian (bar)
Mylgun - Markus Brück (bar)
Organ - Thomas Hay (bass)
Symphony Orchestra RTV Slovenia/Lior Shambadal
rec. Kaiserslauten, Nov 2000, Jan, May, June, Oct 2001, Feb 2002. DDD
ARTE NOVA 74321 98342 2 [3CDs: 59.02+63.54+24.10]

Wolf grew up in that most civilised of cities, Munich. She began to compose at the age of seven. From 1974 she studied with Richard Langley in Norfolk, Virginia. She attended various Darmstadt master classes in the 1980s. Her most important works include Gilgal for horn and orchestra written for Meir Rimon. There was also a ballet score for drum quintet written for Pfalztheater Kaiserslauten. Her Studies in Breath and Sound were premiered by the Moscow Symphony in 1998. She is currently working on a viola concerto for Rivka Golani.

The storyline of this opera tracks the traumatic coming of age experience of the boy Kirisk. The locale is the Siberian Nivkhi community. The rite of passage involves Kirisk going seal hunting with the old man, Organ, Mylgun, a fellow hunter and Emraijin, the boy's father. All of his companions die at sea driven from their course by a storm tide and disorientated by the fog during the voyage back from the seal island. Along the way there are story tellings and invocations. These include references to the Nivkhi creation mythos.

It is to Wolf's great credit that the presence of the all-sustaining and threatening Sea of Okhotsk and the drumming of the Nivkhi people are suggested with such vividness. The threat of the Arctic wastes are evoked with unruly and abrasive strangeness in the lengthy first scene of Act 1 (trs. 5-6, CD1) in which the rolling and yawing trombones over Organ's long soliloquy remind the listener of Hovhaness's Ani and Vishnu symphonies. The attention to clarity in Wolf's orchestration is strong. At the end of tr. 6 CD1 (5.40) the harp paints unapologetically in colours that link with the writing of Herrmann (Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and Vaughan Williams (Sinfonia Antartica). Skirling strands of violins and abrasively protesting rolling brassy storm blasts thrash their way through scene 3 (CD1 tr. 8). The persistent quiet burble of the brass is at times like a subdued echo of the vivace writing for the horn choir in Janáček's Sinfonietta. Impressions flood in: the rattle of woodblocks, the creak of the withered world turning, the glimmer of moonlight, the massive quietly rolling swell (CD3 tr.1 12.25), the snare-drum roll portending inimical fate and the bony clatter of some ritual (CD3 tr. 2 00.23) which in its mesmeric repetitiveness reminds of Reich's Clapping and Drumming and of the Gamelan Anklung of Britten and McPhee. The pattering of the violins and woodwind in Act 3 (CD3 tr. 1 6.43) suggests some acquaintance with the symphonies of Allan Pettersson.

The music is elemental, tonal, not as suave as Sibelius, angular, punchingly rhythmic, primeval, mixing tribal chants with chatter and drum rites. Choir and orchestra interweave like a collision of Tormis and Orff. The music takes Stravinsky's Sacre as a jumping off point - vigorous and unsophisticated, crashing in the percussion and grumbling in the bass section of the woodwind.

If the solo vocal writing can be gloomily introspective and suggestive of smoke-filled skin tents rather than conversational ease this is part and parcel of the ruthless folktale which stresses the remorseless fate of the old and weak and the survival of youth in the shape of Kirisk. At the end this is no longer the naive Kirisk who started the voyage but one who carries the weight of the sacrifice of the three fellow travellers who died to save him. His story will now be added to the folk memory of his people.

This is not the first time that an Arctic Ocean mise-en-scène has been chosen. Haakon Børresen’s opera Kaddara is known because of Lauritz Melchior’s recording of Ujarak’s Farewell.

Wolf's shamanic opera combines elements of Orff, Reich, Stravinsky and Tormis. It is here extremely well performed and recorded. Just a pity that there is no English translation although all background articles and detailed synopsis are in English and German. Interesting that a decision was taken to spread this work across three CDs. It could have gone onto two but presumably that would have disturbed the continuity of at least two of the scenes.

Kirisk was premiered at the Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern in March 2000.

Rob Barnett

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