Hartmann’s 30 Years War Opera Simplicius Simplicissimus Has Echoes of Nazi Germany

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hartmann, Simplicius Simplicissimus (sung in English translation by David Pountney): Soloists, Britten Sinfonia / Timothy Redmond (conductor), Lillian Baylis Theatre at Sadler’s Wells, London, 15.11.2016. (CC)

Stephanie Corley (Simplicius) & Ensemble. (c) Max Lacome

Simplicius – Stephanie Corley
Farmer – Emyr Wyn Jones
Soldier – William Dazeley
Hermit – Adrian Thompson
Sergeant – Tristan Hambleton
Governor – Mark Le Brocq
Captain – Matthew Durkan
Woman – Chiara Vinci
Ensemble – Tristan Hambleton, Emyr Wyn Jones, Nicholas Morris, Nicholas Morton, Bradley Smith, Adam Sullivan, Andrew Tipple, James Way

Polly Graham – Director
Nate Gibson – Designer
Ceri James – Lighting Designer
Will Duke – Projection Designer
Michael Spenceley – Choreographer

Astonishingly, this was the UK premiere staging of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s only full-length opera. The libretto was co-authored by the composer and the conductor Hermann Scherchen after a 17th-century novel by Christoffel von Grimmelshausen and, although based on events of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in Germany, the parallels between that and the Third Reich were irresistible for Polly Graham, who provided a powerful meditation on war – and, in the person of the Hermit who lives within the natural order of the world around him, peace. The eponymous hero, Simplicius, is in the honoured line of Holy/Illumined Fools, taking his place with the Simpleton of Boris and the Fool from King Lear in his penchant for voicing potent truths in the midst of people who live in illusion. There is a potent parallel with the composer himself, perhaps, who lived in “internal exile” in the Nazi era, writing works that would not see the light of day until decades afterwards.

The stage itself is split into levels, with the orchestra occupying one side and clearly visible. Hartmann’s fine score requires more strings than the Britten Sinfonia could squeeze into its restricted space, and the resulting loss of depth and sheen was keenly felt at times. That said, the lean ensemble powerfully conveyed the contours of Hartmann’s score. The musical language veers from more advanced, pungent musical language to pastiche Bach Chorale and even references to Borodin’s Prince Igor. The score used for this production is mostly the revised 1957 one, with the restoration of some passages (the score originated in the early years of the Reich) and with still other influences from Karl Peinkofer’s 1976 reduced percussion version.

The actual setting appears to be a dusty attic which houses a painting upon which clever projections add life; the church in the painting is seen on fire, for example, a casualty of conflict. A wolf, important in the first scene where Simplicius, appears in caricature silhouette; it could also be argued that many of the principal roles, particularly those associated with the army, are caricatures along the lines that Berg rejoiced in in Wozzeck. The production team’s use of minimal means for maximal impact within the confines of small theatre was a continual source of wonder.

The story moves between extremes, and the score mirrors this. A scene of viscerally-portrayed rape vies with the gentle, paternal figure of the Hermit; marches play an all too expected part. All credit to the players of the Britten Sinfonia for coping so well with Hartmann’s demands, not least Principal Viola Clare Fennimore in the extended lines of the Overture.

As the titular hero, Stephanie Corley was an assured presence, projecting the boyish character with confidence, her voice well suited to the role. Just as impressive, Adrian Thompson’s Hermit was a character of wisdom whose death scene became a clear high point of the evening. As so often in opera, death begets eloquence. Mark Le Brocq was excellent as the rather grotesque Governor while the garishly painted portrayals of the army roles of Sergeant (Tristan Hambleton), Captain (Matthew Durkan) and Soldier (William Dazeley) were captivating.

For an opera with so much debauchery in a variety of different forms, debauchery clearly shown here (including the extended rape of a young girl), it remains interesting that the overall effect was less shocking, more poignant. The timely reminder of the chaos of war, and indeed in the parallel of the Thirty Years War and Nazi Germany reminds us that humankind has a pronounced propensity not to learn when it comes to warfare. A most stimulating evening that inevitably comes with a recommendation given the rarity of the material it presents, this is a production that stimulates and intrigues. Hartmann’s score may not be of uniform, white-hot invention, but is a fascinatingly flawed diamond that glitters brightly.

Colin Clarke

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