Wolfgang RIHM (b.1952)
Dionysos (2010) [122.00]
Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone) - N; Matthias Klink (tenor) - Guest, Apollo; Mojca Erdmann (soprano) - Ariadne; Elim Rombo (soprano); Julia Faylenbogen (alto); Uli Kirsch - The Skin; Vienna State Opera Concert Choir
Deutsches Symphony Orchestra/Ingo Metzmacher
rec. Mozarthaus, Salzburg Festival, 25-27 July 2010
Extra: “Ich bin ein Labyrinth”, documentary film by Bettina Erhardt [53.00]
Picture format DVD: NTSC 16:9
Sound format DVD: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.0, DTS 5.0
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Booklet with sketches for set design by Jonathan Meese.
[122.00 + 53.00]
George Bernard Shaw, who was also a music critic as well as an author, once declared that while opera was the ideal medium for the exploration of the emotions - he had Tristan und Isolde particularly in mind - it was not best suited for the presentation of narrative or intellectual argument. Like many of Shaw’s generalisations, it was at best a half-truth, designed to reinforce his own reputation as a playwright who specialised in the successful presentation of intellectual ideas on the stage. Indeed in Man and Superman he took the philosophical ideas of Nietzsche into the realm of the drawing-room comedy of manners, having an incidental pop at Don Giovanni for good measure.
Despite Shaw, composers have continued to use the operatic stage as a medium for the exploration of more than purely emotional themes - very successful many of them have been too. Such operas range from the basic allegories of Tippett’s The midsummer marriage and other ‘takes’ on the Magic Flute quest, to much more severe works such as Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Pfitzner’s Palestrina which explore the detailed methodology of artistic creation. Wolfgang Rihm’s ‘opera fantasy’ Dionysos explores the descent into madness of Friedrich Nietzsche, the nineteenth century German philosopher, writer and composer. Nietzsche was a disciple of Wagner who turned against his mentor, and the opening of the opera appears almost like a palimpsest of the opening of the Ring, with a character seeking affection who is seduced and rejected by a bevy of beautiful laughing women. The parallel is further underlined by the fact that the singer taking the role of ‘N’ - as Nietzsche is called throughout - is the same singer who recently took the part of Alberich in Barenboim’s stage production of Das Rheingold.
There are in fact some serious problems with this opera, and most of them come down to the text. The composer has drawn this up himself employing entirely the words of Nietzsche himself in his fragmentary Dithyrambs composed during and after his mental collapse. There are some poetic passages, but too much of the text consists of ejaculations and brief sentences which hardly cohere in any manner that make sense. These totally fail to provide material for any extended vocal writing even when - as frequently here - the short phrases are repeated many times over. After the opening scene Rihm casts his net of allusions very wide indeed, not only presenting calques on Wagner and episodes from Nietzsche’s own life, but also venturing into the territory of Greek myth and the legend of Marsyas, flayed alive by Apollo for challenging him in the field of music. In the earlier scenes, apart from the Rheingold references, we get constant hints of the Flower maidens from Parsifal. Other passages recall Strauss (in Die Frau ohne Schatten and Ariadne auf Naxos), Schreker (almost everywhere) and even bizarrely Bartók in what is presumably an intentional quote from the Concerto for orchestra in the final orchestral interlude. As all too frequently happens in such cases, the music that is imitative has more real emotional strength than the passages by Rihm himself which bind these sections together. Over the past twenty years Rihm has garnered quite a reputation as the acceptable and accessible representative of the avant-garde school. However rather too much of what we are given here tends to be either indistinctly anodyne and amorphous, too predictably violent, or simply repetitive.
The descent into madness has been a staple of operatic composers from time immemorial, but the main point of comparison here has obviously to be Berg’s Wozzeck. Rihm simply fails to meet the challenge of that masterpiece, principally because while the sympathy of the audience is fully engaged with the plight of the hapless Wozzeck, the character of ‘N’ here simply fails to enlist any sense of compassion even when he is presented to us in the guise of the flayed Marsyas. The latter scene is really Birtwistle territory, and the music here does become more consciously modern and dissonant where earlier there have been passages of some degree of beauty and melodic line. There are indeed many sections of that sort, despite the short-breathed nature of the text, which develop a real sense of dispassionate ecstasy. The impression on this listener at least is one of admiration rather than engagement.
Any blame for this cannot possibly be laid at the door of the performers. One understands that the leading role of ‘N’ was originally intended to be sung by Matthias Goerne, but that when he withdrew at a late stage Johannes Martin Kränzle stepped into the breach. As we know from his Glyndebourne Beckmesser, Kränzle has a marvellous stage presence and his acting in the opening scene - where he has almost nothing at all to sing - sets the tone for his whole performance. He seems to be totally unafraid of anything, even singing the final duet of Act Two while perching half-way up a ladder and supporting the tenor on his arm. That tenor, Matthias Klink, begins with a raw pinched tone which makes one fear the worst; but he soon settles down and delivers some really lovely mezza voce although in his later appearance in the guise of Apollo he is reduced to simply bawling - the composer’s fault, not his. The other real star is however Mojca Erdmann as Ariadne. She copes with the stratospheric high registers that Rihm continually demands - more Zerbinetta than Ariadne - and does so with amazing ease. She even manages to make most of the text intelligible at the same time. Rihm does not make it easy for any of his singers. He often brings in instruments from the orchestra to take over a melodic line at the end of phrases which could mercilessly expose any false pitching; but I did not spot any instance where anybody was caught out in this way. He is also careful in his use of the chorus, allowing them to declaim in Sprechstimme for much of the time and only generally insisting on precise pitching when they are singing from offstage - and, as can be seen from time to time, reading from copies. Some of the choral writing indeed even comes surprisingly close to the final scene of Bernstein’s Candide … and that is meant as a compliment; it is rare to hear a modern composer write such blatantly traditional harmonies.
The production by Pierre Audi is quite spectacular in places, although there is no real sense of the locations described in the score - “In the mountains” or “A square”. That said, there are some splendidly cataclysmic video projections by Martin Eidenberger, and Jonathan Meese’s geometric sets work well in context. Ingo Metzmacher obtains superlatively nuanced playing and singing from the orchestra and chorus. The whole work has clearly been given the most careful preparation. One or two of the stage actions appear unmotivated - why does ‘N’ pick up a chair and flourish it towards the end of Act Two? Generally however the singers work well as an ensemble and there is certainly no lack of dramatic involvement.
In the past I have had cause to complain about the presentation of new works with a damaging lack of guidance and explanation. That can most certainly not be said about this issue. The complete score has been made available online by Universal Edition. Here we get a second DVD with a lengthy documentary on the origins of the work, as well as substantial booklet notes, the whole enshrined in a bulky slipcase. I found it useful to view the documentary before watching the work itself. I say this despite some of the statements made by the production team causing me to bridle. The designer stated baldly that the idea of an opera based on a narrative was of no interest to him. This made me wonder what he was doing getting involved in a dramatic medium like opera in the first place.
The documentary was created by Bettina Erhardt, who was also responsible for the video production. This is puzzling one when, thinking as highly of the work as she clearly does, she is so frequently to be found pointing the cameras in the wrong direction. Quite apart from focusing on immobile characters while someone else is singing, she all too often cuts away from the stage altogether to show us individual players in the orchestra pit or the chorus standing in serried ranks and singing backstage - which is how we know they were singing from copies. At the beginning of Act Three she overlays the opening of the music with shots that appear to be taken from security cameras placed in the foyer of the theatre, showing the audience milling around during the interval. During the magnificently dramatic video projections that accompany the interlude following the flaying of Marsyas, she continually moves away to show us various members of the percussion section apparently intent on demonstrating their stick technique. This not only argues that she has insufficient faith in the quality of the work to hold the attention without the use of such gimmicks, but also even more unfortunately destroys such dramatic tension as has been generated. The subtitles are good, although on occasions they have a disturbing tendency to jump around either to the side or the top of the screen to avoid obscuring the action.
Although Rihm’s Dionysos has toured around various locations in Europe, one wonders whether it has sufficient dramatic legs to survive in the longer term; there don’t appear to have been any new stagings for a couple of years. One fears that the slow pace of the action and its sometimes obscure motivation may tell against it. Reviewing the original stage production for the Seen and Heard section of this site in 2010 Simon Morgan made the telling comment “There can’t be many people who could readily understand Dionysos at first take: you’d have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Greek mythology, a doctorate in philosophy and know the life and works of Friedrich Nietzsche inside out for that.” For that reason, as well as the merits of the score itself, it is doubly valuable to have this recording on DVD - and so well presented too.
Paul Corfield Godfrey