Morgan und Abend, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, November 2015Posted on 14 November 2015
In many operas we are watching life, yet see death. In this one we are watching death, yet see life — a remarkable turnaround facilitated by a fantastic match between music and libretto.
Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas draws on the avant garde tradition of his homeland in producing a musical language that uses microtones and creates soundscapes that seem to play with the passage of time itself. The text is by Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse, hailed as the new Ibsen, whose libretto is based on his novel Morning and Evening. Morning represents birth, Evening death, and in Graham Vick’s excellent staging, with designs by Richard Hudson and lighting by Giuseppe di Iorio, we are in a grey Mesopotamian-like Netherworld where all is of clay.
It is clear at the outset that this is a memory of life, a father’s memory of the birth of his son Johannes, but it becomes a memory of Johannes himself overlaid as the opera progresses by interactions with his wife Erna, his daughter Signe and his friend Peter. Erna and Peter seem to have died before him, yet Signe is in a different world where, though she cannot see him, she senses his presence as he tries to grasp her. In the end, Signe is alone recalling her father’s death and burial yet still able to feel his presence in the gentle wind on a bright day near a sparkling blue ocean.
Baritone Christoph Pohl and soprano Sarah Wegener sing with superb musicality and remarkable diction as Johannes and Signe — who doubles as the midwife. Microtones appear in the vocal line but not the orchestral score, whose realisation under the baton of Michael Boder created sound that seemed to speed up and slow down at will, particularly in the first part where an actor playing the role of Johannes’ father speaks in English. The singers, including Helena Rasker and Will Hartmann as Erna and Peter, sang beautifully in German.
The rhythm and tune of the German language are important to Haas’s composition, but the spoken words of Johannes’ father (during the first half-hour of a performance lasting about 90 minutes) are in the local language — English here but German for later performances at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. The same actor (Klaus Maria Brandauer) does both, but his unnatural English intonation takes on a comedic Peter Sellers’ aspect in moments of tension. Pity, but as soon as the singing starts it is like a light shining through the darkness. Wonderful, and congratulations to the Royal Opera for putting such an original work on the main stage.
Performances continue on various dates until November 28 — for details click here.