Widmann’s Babylon Reaches High, Ends up Confused

GermanyGermany J. Widmann, Babylon: Soloists, Bavarian State Orchestra, Kent Nagano (conductor), National Theater, Munich, 31.10.2012 (JFL)

Direction: Carlus Padrissa – La Fura dels Baus
Sets: Roland Olbeter
Costumes: Chu Uroz
Lighting: Urs Schönbaum
Dramaturgy: Moritz Gagern, Miron Hakenbeck

Soul: Claron McFadden
Inanna: Anna Prohaska
Tammu: Jussi Myllys
Priest King / Death: Willard White
Scorpion Man: Kai Wessel
Euphrates: Gabriele Schnaut
Ezekiel: August Zirner
Seven Vulvæ: Agnes Preis, Ursula schulze-Antesberger, Eva Budde, Virginija Skiriute, Ruth Irene Meyer, Eleanor Barnard, Anette Beck-Schaefer
Seven Phalloi: Jochen Schaefer, Harald Thum, Gintaras Vysniauskas, Oscar Qezada, Yo Chan Ahn, Klaus Basten, Werner Bind
et al.

Picture courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

The circus came to town: an elitist circus inside the National Theater with the ringmasters of La Fura dels Baus hard at work. Jörg Widmann does many things right in his new opera Babylon , foremost among them the rediscovery of sensuality for contemporary opera. But the all-out effort of the Bavarian State Opera did not reward high hopes. A soppy and banal ending  with schmaltz worthy of a third rate musical finishes the opera off after more than three hours of valiant struggle. The alleged symbiosis of composer and his suspiciously famous librettist, TV-philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, revealed itself a mirage, too: The finale is a ring-a-ring-o’-roses accompanied by Sloterdijk’s tired, hokey prose, and off go the protagonists in a rickety slow-motion spaceship to planets far away… ca. 50 feet diagonally away from where they started and where they remained dangling during the postlude until the curtain call. Up in the gallery, first hollers were forthcoming, and Widmann go a solid round of boos even on the night of the second performance.

The opera starts with a lonely lament by a Scorpion Man (delightfully otherworldly, thanks to counter tenor Kai Wessel) in front of the destroyed semi-dystopian ruinscape. Video projections show busily reconstructing Babylonians accompanied by whale-song from crumhorns. With the costumes of Chu Uroz and the lighting of Urs Schönbaum, the impression was like experiencing the title sequence of an as-yet-unmade James Bond film. A conventional chorus chimes in, musically not two corners removed from Carmina Burana, visually with a heavy dose of the original Tron. It feels like a show, pleasant and entertaining, with effective music specifically set to it. So far, so good: that’s pretty much what opera ought to be.

Fierce vocal acrobatics are required asked of Claron McFadden, “The Soul”—the ex-corporeal manifestation of the Judaism that has faded from exiled Jewish protagonist Tammu. Throughout the opera she is obliged  to perform stratospheric feats, fit for a being not of this world. McFadden mastered the ungrateful part impressively, even as her voice threatened to crack underneath the strain early on.

The high priests of superficial stage-hokum, La Fura dels Baus, have a dozen fastened and secured extras build a Tower of Babel with large blocks embossed with various letters of various alphabets, to give obviousness a chance. At the grating climax the massive tower is toppled to the surprise of no one, given the large safety net that has to be raised before the controlled and tidy disaster is performed. No orchestra musicians were harmed in the making of this opera.

In another incident a human pyramid swirls around—one side Youth and Beauty, drenched sensually in liquid gold, the other Age and Ugliness and Decay and dowsed in viscid pitch. To expect textual elucidation from such intermittently stunning pictures is like expecting a dramatic arch at a Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not show. The Jewish protagonists and priests sport rocket-pack Menorahs, Priest-King Abubu (Willard White), appears as a Michelin-Man high priest, accompanied by his tin-foil seconds.

Finally the true highlight of the opera appears: Babylonian priestess and Tammu-lover Inanna. Or, more precisely, the impossibly charming and enchanting Anna Prohaska, who embodies a rôle so dominant in aesthetic appeal that it seems the whole opera was written around and indeed for her. She descends from above: a tempting upper body in the color of pale-olive clay, statuesque except for a bedazzling brassier; attached to a torso of silver balloons. The titillating appearance makes sense; Inanna represents free love, an offer into which Tammu dips liberally as he hallucinates of the ‘Horror of the Flood’.

The unholy climax before intermission, directly responsible for the considerable amount of attrition after the interval, is a revue: a case of the Widmann-Follies, a “Babylonian Carnival” of Broadway rejects that apes the confusion of languages by throwing every hackneyed piece of music Widmann could find into a bucket and then hurling it back on stage: Bavarian Oompahpah-marches (recycled bits of earlier works of Widmann’s), Trinidadian steel drums, juvenile hit-parade drinking songs, and Dixieland. It sounds like Varèse vomiting at the Oktoberfest. Two Babylonian party-animals play Tron-frisbee in the background. This fourth of seven chapters is named “By the Waters of Babylon”. Any hint of the famous Bach chorale on the same subject remains missing, although Widmann is not afraid of offering a mélange of composer references elsewhere through this opera.

For the duration of a clarinet solo intermezzo—a Widmann signature move—after intermission, faith in Babylon is briefly restored. The scenes, on their way to the all-important number seven, get more concise. But Babylon doesn’t get better for it. Next up is an excursion to the Magic Flute, but with ritual human sacrifice. Jussi Myllys’ Tammu, who even sounds like a stilted Eastern European Tamino, is the chosen victim. He is sent through fire and water trials (neat sets!) to prepare for the sacrificial ceremony, accompanied by Beethovenesque choruses. A naked mariachi-band of four trumpeters is on standby, a Rubik’s cube of letters floating above is finally utilized as a sacrificial chamber, with La Fura dels Baus’ apologies to Kubrik’s 2001 Space Odyssey and an MRI scanner. Then Widmann takes a detour via reverse Orfeo ed Euridice by way of Salome: Inanna is intent on getting Tammu out of the underworld. To that end she dances a dance of the seven accessories in front of Death: a cigar-smoking Bassa Selim in drag, sung alternately with falsetto and his natural low bass by Willard White. For all its artistic intentions, it’s no more comfortable than watching a Big Momma or Madea movie. The ears at least get a treat by sounds that could also be Uri Caine’s. Inanna strips her way to success and is allowed to take her love back from the gates of hell as long as she does not lose sight of him. The task is not exactly rocket science and she manages. A good thing, too, because those two spaceship tickets were probably non-refundable—much like tickets to Babylon.

Just one hearing of such a new work, its ink still wet during rehearsals, does not allow to judge accurately whether Kent Nagano and his Bavarian State Orchestra succeeded fully… but it is safe to assume that he did: This is the kind of music, the kind of project, and the kind of complexity that the calm-exuding Nagano excels at, even when he struggles with seemingly easier fare.

Kaija Saariaho on the subject of opera once said the following: “Yes, with an opera you can spread your work further… than through any other kind of composition. But never write an opera to get famous. Never do it early in your career, do it only if you absolutely have something to say, and when only that particular format will do.” It would be presumptuous to suggest that Widmann, hardly a greenhorn, didn’t know what he was doing, but the advice from the composer of L’Amour de loin rings true, all the same

It is Babylon’s misfortune to have been burdened by too-high expectations, partly because Widmann’s music should so lend itself to the genre. Comparatively, Babylon did as well or better than many other large-scale operas recently premiered with great fanfare and to high hopes: Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland manages something else, something more intriguing but more forbidding, Tan Dun’s The First Emperor is highbrow rubbish, Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice unnecessarily tedious, Eötvös’ The Tragedy of the Devil (another Munich premiere) just plain unfortunate. Babylon does itself no favors, with a dull libretto about a highfalutin’ story, not to mention musical banality—as if the latter could offset the former. But it also contains plenty promise for a future, more unassuming success… hopefully attained by Widmann’s next project, an opera premiering at the Salzburg Festival and tailored to the splendid Christian Gerhaher.

Jens F. Laurson