Back to the Seventies! Wolfgang Rihm’s Impressive and Incomprehensible Die Hamletmaschine

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Rihm: Die Hamletmaschine:  Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonie Zurich, Gabriel Feltz (conductor), Zürich Opernhaus, Zurich, 07.02.2016 (RP)

Rihm: Die Hamletmaschine, Zurich (c) Tanja Dorendorf
Rihm: Die Hamletmaschine, Zurich
(c) Tanja Dorendorf

Hamlet I und II: Matthias Riechwald & Anne Ratte-Polle
Hamlet III: Scott Hendricks
Ophelia: Nicola Beller Carbone
Ophelia Double, Marx, Voice from the Coffin: Claire de Sévigné
Ophelia Double, Lenin, Voice from the Coffin: Ivana Rusko
Ophelia Double, Mao, Voice from the Coffin: Carmen Seidel
Germania: Jaqueline Santana de Oliveira
Claudius: Michal Czyz
Horatio: Benjamin Mathis
Polonius: Sebastian Zuber
Dancers: Laura Burgener, Andrea Frei, Evelyn Angela Gugolz, Malou Meyenhofer, Juliette Rahon & Natalie Wagner

Director: Sebastian Baumgarten
Stage Design: Barbara Ehnes
Costumes: Marysol Del Castillo
Lighting: Elfried Roller
Video Design: Chris Knock
Video Collaboration: Tabea Rothfuchs
Choreographische Collaboration: Kinsun Chan
Chorus Masters: Jürg Hämmerli & Michael Zlabinger:
Dramaturgy: Claus Spahn

It is virtually impossible to come to grips with Wolfgang Rihm’s Die Hamletmaschine upon experiencing it for the first time. The music is loud, aggressive and relentless. There is no melody per se, as Rihm intended that the sound itself be the protagonist. Searching for meaning in the text, which is hurled at the audience by the singers and actors, as well as projected in various ways, is a futile exercise. Maybe that is the reason that the opera has not been staged since 1990 in Hamburg, after having been premiered at the Nationaltheater Mannheim in 1987. Or it could be that it is just too daunting to mount: Rihm calls for monumental forces both on stage and in the orchestra. However, Sebastian Baumgarten’s production for the Zurich Opera somehow manages to make sense of it all. Yes, it was jagged and discomforting, but at the same time overwhelming and wonderful. That he and his production team created such a cohesive whole out these disparate parts is truly impressive.

Heiner Müller’s Die Hamletmaschine is only about nine pages long, but it is one of his most important plays, and has been produced around the world since its premiere in Paris in 1979. It has also served as the inspiration for three composers, including Rihm and his opera. Müller (1929-1995), who ranks with Bertolt Brecht as one of the most important German dramatists of the last century, spent most of his career in what was the former East Germany, often at odds with the Communist apparatchiks. Shakespeare’s play may have been the springboard for Die Hamletmaschine, but apart from the names of the lead characters, a few quotes, and mentions of Denmark, there is little of the Bard to be seen or heard. Instead, the play is a series of unrelated scenes, with lead roles portrayed by singers, actors and dancers. There is no plot, and what themes Müller employs are hard to discern and open to highly subjective interpretations.

It has been written that Müller’s works are “a dialogue with the dead” to examine history. The production achieved this, managing to capture the zeitgeist of the 1970s while simultaneously making Müller’s text contemporary and relevant. The large, walking, talking heads of Marx, Lenin and Mao come off as a bit comical in 2016; those men cast a different shadow in the 1970s, especially if you were living behind the Iron Curtain. One scene was set in Andy Warhol’s Factory, where silk screens bearing their images were being mass produced. This is not in the play, but Müller does mention Coca-Cola, which Warhol wrote of as being one of the great equalizers in modern society: everyone drinks it, from the rich and famous to the poorest person on the street. Socialism and consumerism turned on their heads.

It is the fleeting, but powerful present-day images that made this production seem so of the moment. When Hamlet speaks of the “ruins of Europe,” there is a projection of refugees crowded on a small ship at sea. Later, the EU flag is used as a tablecloth, which elicited a few muted, nervous laughs from the audience. A borderless Europe, let alone a united Germany, were unfathomable in the late 1970s, and now it is under threat. A photo of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz from the 1970s, East Germany’s attempt to counter the high rises and commercialism on the other side of the Berlin Wall, is supplanted later by one dated 2016. Alexanderplatz and its environs are now as commercialized and full of the same stores as Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse. And while Hamlet’s cry, “I want to be a woman,” after which he dons a wild platinum blond wig and crazy magenta coat, smacks of the age of Caitlyn Jenner, it is in play. In an opera where it is difficult to comprehend what was being sung or spoken, the images made the impact and provided context.

I am not sure where to begin in describing Müller’s material dealing with women or the female characters in the play, but the text is short and can be found here. Make of it what you will. Here, too, Baumgarten found ways to make a very unsettling link between the past and the present. Contemporary photographs of Susan Atkins, a follower of Charles Manson convicted of participating in eight murders carried out by his followers in 1969, including that of actress Sharon Tate (who was married to film director Roman Polanski and pregnant with his child at the time of her death), were projected during Ophelia’s Electra monologue, which includes the lines, “Down with the joy of oppression. Long live hate, loathing, rebellion, death. When she walks through your bedroom with butcher’s knives, you’ll know the truth.”  Atkins is currently the longest-incarcerated female inmate in the California penal system. Was this a stark reminder that what Müller wrote was real and not fantasy, an indictment of the US penal system, or was the world never a safe and predictable place? Knife-wielding butcherers are images that we see regularly in 2016, but granted they are generally not wearing makeup reminiscent of the American hard rock band Kiss.

Taking your seat in the opera house, you immediately knew it was going to be a loud 90 minutes. Three boxes on either side of the stage were full of percussion instruments, with two more such outposts at the rear of the stage. It is no surprise that the few quiet, transparent moments of music came as a great relief. A long, ever louder, repetitive drum roll in the middle of the work did little to ease the tension, but did provide a sharp musical contrast to the rest of the opera’s music. The vocal lines ranged from parlando to soaring lines that took the singers from the bottom of their ranges to their uppermost extremes.Text was mostly declaimed by the actors at full volume  ̶  in other words, shouted.

The entire cast was excellent and gave committed, impassioned, polished performances. One can only stand in awe of the work of the chorus and orchestra. Nicola Beller Carbone fearlessly negotiated Ophelia’s music, which at times brought to mind Leonora’s treacherous aria, “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” from Beethoven’s Fidelio (but that might just be me searching for some musical reference point). Baritone Scott Hendricks donned the many guises of Hamlet III to great effect, and likewise managed to make his vocal presence felt  ̶  no mean feat in this opera. Conductor Gabriel Feltz exerted total control over this monumental undertaking.

When the stage went dark, there was a brief silence and then muted applause broke out, punctuated by a few shouted bravos. The performers were greeted with enthusiasm. Outside the opera house, I spoke briefly with a Swiss acquaintance about what we had just experienced. He was a bit overwhelmed by the performance and said that he knew little of Wolfgang Rihm or of this type of music. He did not quite know what to make of it all, but was proud that the Zurich Opera staged Die Hamletmaschine. Not being Swiss, pride does not enter into the equation in quite the same way, but as I wrote earlier, I was just tremendously impressed.

Rick Perdian

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