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Aribert REIMANN (b. 1936)
Lear - opera in two parts (1978)
Bo Skovhus - Lear; Katja Pieweck - Goneril; Hellen Kwon - Regan; Siobhan Stagg - Cordelia; Erwin Leder - Fool; Lauri Vasar - Gloucester; Andrew Watts - Edgar; Martin Homrich - Edmund; Christian Miedl - Albany; Peter Galliard - Cornwall; Jürgen Sacher - Kent; Wilhelm Schwinghammer - King of France
Hamburg Staatsoper Chorus, Hamburg Philharmonic/Simone Young
rec. Hamburg Staatsoper, Germany 2014
Video 1080i 16:9, Audio LPCM Stereo 2.0, DTS-MA 5.1 Surround, Region free.
Sung in German, subtitles English and German
Bonus: Making of Lear including interviews with Aribert Reimann and Simone Young
reviewed in surround
ARTHAUS MUSIC Blu-ray 109064 [156.00 (opera) & 20.00 (bonus)]

This is the third recording of Lear. The first and second were made by Deutsche Grammophon in Munich in 1978 and by Oehms in Frankfurt in 2008. Now we have this video recording from the first Hamburg production in 2014. Lear was written for Hamburg Staatsoper but was eventually premiered in Munich. This production is a thus a sort of home-coming for Reimann as discussed by him and Simone Young in the interesting bonus interview. Reimann's librettist Claus Henneberg has shortened and somewhat reordered Shakespeare to suit operatic conventions. That said there is little conventional about this dense and extremely challenging work. As in Medea Reimann pulls no punches and expects his audience to concentrate almost as hard as the singers and orchestra. Added to that the stage director Karoline Gruber has made decisions that, though coherent, make things still harder. In marked contrast to the premiere production in Munich with Fischer-Dieskau where the setting is much more realistic (a clip of the finale is available on YouTube), this Lear appears as a modern dictator in boots, breaches and braces à la Mussolini. The scenes are set with various pieces of modernist paraphernalia including graffiti-covered walls though thankfully no Perspex suitcases. Again, in a marked change to Reimann's own instructions in the libretto, Lear's desperate lament over Cordelia's body is here performed without a body. Lear's family and hangers-on appear as modern, rich and immoral to a man and woman; all except Cordelia who, as befits her part in this tragedy, shows much compassion. Lear's collapse from easy power to powerlessness and madness is brutally portrayed on the stage and in the score. The Fool's role is also enhanced by directorial fiat and, says Gruber, "Only Lear can see him - he remains invisible to the other characters. As the protagonist's alter ego, he guides and directs him. I consider him the personification of the inner force that drives us." The music uses tone-rows as a 'constructional element', according to the notes, which should alert the potential viewer to the difficulties this score presents. Compared to Lear, Lulu, for example, is extremely easy listening. However the music does work with the plot and not against it so that despite the percussive battering it does sound coherent. There are moments of comparative relaxation and at times great lyricism but by and large this has to be one of the noisiest operas out there. Fortunately audio and video quality is high and providing your sound system can cope this makes for an impressive but exhausting operatic experience. Bo Skovhus is quite magnificent and the rest of the cast are not far behind. Erwin Leder, the Fool, is better known as a screen actor, he was the chief mechanic in Das Boot for example. Here he haunts the action wherein he is not obliged exactly to sing but often to comment in a thin, nasal voice, sometimes speaking, sometimes singing. The three sisters are all strongly characterized and the fact that Regan and Goneril are very unlovable indeed, as portrayed, is a positive benefit. There is no doubt that Reimann has added to the power of his libretto such that the opera leaves one as drained as the original play. This one may take no prisoners but it is worth the effort to watch. Recommended, but not lightly.

Two notes for opera buffs: I can find no evidence that the film of the first production of Reimann's Lear has ever been issued commercially but the YouTube clip referenced above, and at least one other extract, shows there is a film. For the adventurous, Ondine have just issued Aulis Sallinen's 2000 opera King Lear on DVD.

Dave Billinge


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