Ambitious New Opera Commission Fails To Impress

25/08/2014

 Salzburg Festival (3) – Dalbavie, Charlotte Salomon: Soloists, Choral ‘Stürmer’, Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, Marc-André Dalbavie (conductor). Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 14.8.2014 (MB)

Charlotte  Salomon Buo Morel Anntoun Crebassa Kallisch  Le_Texier (c) Ruth_Walz

Charlotte Salomon Buo Morel Anntoun Crebassa Kallisch Le_Texier (c) Ruth_Walz

Cast
Charlotte Salomon – Johanna Wokalek
Charlotte Kahn – Marianne Crebassa
Paulinka Bimbam – Anaïk Morel
Amadeus Daberlohn – Frédéric Antoun
Herr Knarre, Fourth Nazi – Vincent Le Texier
Frau Knarre – Cornelia Kallisch
Franziska Kahn, A Woman – Géraldine Chauvet
Dr Kahn, First Emigrant – Jean-Sébastien Bou
Professor Klingklang, Art Student, Second Nazi, Policeman – Michal Partyka
Art Professor, Propaganda Minister, First Nazi, Man, Second Emigrant – Eric Huchet
rolese Art Student, Hostel Landlady – Annika Schlicht
Third Nazi – Wolfgang Resch

Production
Luc Bondy (director)
Johannes Schütz (set designs)
Moidele Bickel (costumes)
Bertrand Couderc (lighting)
Marie-Louise Bischofsberger (choreography)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)

I wish I could write more enthusiastically about this. What, given the delay over Kurtág’s Endgame, still promised for next year, has turned out to be the first-staged of the Salzburg Festival’s four operatic commissions comes from the pen of a highly-regarded composer, and treats a subject that sounds, on paper at least, not only worthy but interesting. The story of Charlotte Salomon, a German Jewish artist, who created from her gouaches an autobiographical work, Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel, completed in French exile, prior to her unspeakable end in Auschwitz (not featured here) would seem to propose many possibilities not only for plot and character portrayal and development, but also for contemplation upon the artist’s construction of her life, œuvre, and legacy. (I am not sure why Singespiel rather than Singspiel, although Dalbavie claims in an interview with Konrad Kuhn that the distinction allowed him to avoid the classical Singspiel fate of ‘music … interrupted by spoken scenes of “straight” theatre,’ in favour of ‘recited texts … woven into the music’.)Alas, Marc-André Dalbavie’s Charlotte Salomon proved, if not a failure, then simply rather forgettable, the concept offering more than the reality.

What, then, was the problem? Part of it seems to have lain in a somewhat troubled genesis. An original libretto by Richard Millet, with whom Dalbavie had already collaborated on his earlier opera, Gesualdo, was rejected, Dalbavie finding that ‘Millet’s text doesn’t give one enough of an impression of the person Charlotte Salomon and of her work.’ Millet’s libretto has apparently since been published separately in book form. Barbara Honigmann was suggested by Luc Bondy – who had emboldened Dalbavie to reject Millet’s version – and prepared, reasonably enough, a German libretto, translated into French. However, Charlotte Salomon (as opposed to her fictitious alter ego, ‘Charlotte Kahn’) retains her spoken dialogue in German. Much was made in the programme about the ‘chemical reaction’ between French and German, and so on; in reality, such claims come across as special pleading for slight awkwardness. Moreover, Honigmann’s Epilogue underwent radical revision by Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofsberger at what seems to have been quite a late – too late? – stage. This can only be speculation, given that I do not know what Honigmann provided, but the sketchy nature of the dénouement suggests that either more or less should have been done. Moreover, whilst this is not an opera ‘about’ National Socialism, the almost-walk-on roles for a group of brownshirts, however admirably sung, veer dangerously close to a touch of brief,added ‘colour’.

The opera also, I think, tries to do too much. There is nothing wrong with ambition, of course, but to write the Ring, you have to be Wagner, and so on. The Salomon project was of course in part to encapsulate her reimagined life in art, but to present what attempts to be almost an autobiography in operatic form proves too tall an order. The dramatic material actually comes across, metatheatrical intentions notwithstanding, as more suitable for a television mini-series, albeit necessarily condensed, than for a viable opera. ‘The movement of the music and drama,’ Dalbavie claims, ‘does not follow the model of a linear narrative,’ but that actually is very much how it came across to me. As long as Das Rheingold, and likewise presented without an interval – though I do not think a break would have done any violence here to the ‘two acts with a prelude and an epilogue’ – the experience is not tedious, nor indeed unpleasant, but nor does it, or rather in my case did it, inspire, move, or even really engage. Such thoughts and emotions as I experienced tended to be reflections upon either the idea of the work or the story that had inspired it.

Dalbavie’s score must also bear responsibility here. I admit to being no expert on his work, though I have heard some and generally found it interesting. I was a little surprised to find it spread so thin, almost as ‘background’. The strongest impressions, arguably too strong in context, come from the music quoted – Carmen, Der Freischütz, Bist du bei mir, and so on – and refracted than from the rest, which often just washes over us. Whilst it is perfectly understandable that Dalbavie, or anyone else, might wish to go beyond spectral music, as generally understood, there might be more compelling ways to do so. The writing is undoubtedly refined, in a manner that almost obliges one to resort to national stereotype, but too often lacks dramatic or indeed even musical interest. Did the troubles over the libretto lead to too much of a rush here? Again, such thoughts can only be speculation, and one can only deal with the results. However, those results, whilst again they could not be described as either tedious or unpleasant, made surprisingly little impression.

Bondy’s staging is perfectly decent, stylishly presenting the action, with a degree of simultaneity of action in the different rooms offered by the long stage of the Felsenreitschule. (Alvis Hermanis made more of a concerted effort in that respect for Die Soldaten, two years previously, but there we are dealing with a towering masterpiece which absolutely requires such treatment.) However, I wondered whether a more forthright metatheatrical treatment might have drawn out the latent aspiration of thework. Katie Mitchell, for instance, would seem to have been made for such themes.
Musical performances were the strongest aspect of the evening. Dalbavie, insofar as I could tell for a new work, drew assured, refined, even committed playing from the Mozarteum Orchestra: a far more versatile ensemble than its reputation, or rather lazy reception thereof, might suggest. Marianna Crebassa and Johanna Wokalek did as much as they could to make one believe in the two Charlottes. Anaïk Morel offered heartfelt and richly-toned singing as Paulinka Bimbam (Charlotte’s stepmother, the singer, Paula Lindberg, one of her roles the aforementioned Carmen). Cornelia Kallisch’s appearance as Charlotte’s grandmother was laudably strong on musico-dramatic commitment; I longed to hear more from her. Frédéric Antoun also made a fine impression, especially attentive to words and their dramatic implications, as Amadeus Daberlohn, the vocal teacher who, in love with Paulinka, spurns the heroine. Indeed, there was no weak list amongst a hard-working cast. Its members could not, however, achieve the seemingly impossible. Salomon’s work, seen here briefly, tantalisingly, remains far more intriguing than this recreation.

Mark Berry

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