New Heinz Holliger Opera Not For The Faint-Hearted

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Heinz Holliger, Lunea: Soloists, Basler Madrigalisten, Philharmonia Zurich / Heinz Holliger (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich. 4.3.2018. (JR)


Director – Andreas Homoki
Set – Frank Philipp Schlössmann
Costumes – Klaus Bruns
Lighting – Franck Evin
Chorus – Raphael Immoos
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn


Lenau – Christian Gerhaher
Sophie von Löwenthal – Juliane Banse
Marie Behrends/Karoline Unger – Sarah Maria Sun
Anton Schurz – Ivan Ludlow
Therese Schurz – Annette Schönmüller
Max Löwenthal – Federico Ituarte

Lunea (a play on the name Lenau) is a brand new opera composed by the Swiss composer (and oboist) Heinz Holliger, now almost 80 years of age. He is an admirer of the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau and has based his opera on the poet’s scribblings and sayings in a notebook he unearthed in a Berlin bookshop about fifteen years ago.

Nikolaus Lenau was the nom de plume of Nikolaus Franz Niembsch Edler (aristocrat) von Strehlenau, born in 1802 in what was then Hungary, now Romania. In 1819 he went to University in Vienna, then studied (Hungarian) law in Bratislava, then studied medicine but failed to settle into any profession. Funds from his grandmother enabled him to become a poet, and he became one of Austrian’s greatest modern lyric poets, the typical representative in German literature of that bleak Weltschmerz which began with Lord Byron. Lenau became mentally ill in 1844 and then lived only another 6 years, so dying in a mental asylum before he reached 50.

Holliger first composed the piece for just piano and voice, specifically Christian Gerhaher’s voice. This was performed some five years ago at Zurich Opera. He has now transformed the work into a mini-opera. But, make no mistake, this is no opera in the conventional sense. It is one hour and forty minutes of virtually continuous Sprechgesang, which was just too much for some of the audience. There is no interval, there are no breaks. It runs seamlessly from one ‘Blatt’ (page) to another, there is no plot, hardly any action; Holliger himself describes it as word-music. Lenau is portrayed by Christian Gerhaher who, needless to say, is superb; the music however gives him no chance to display the beauty of his voice. He is ably supported by three ladies who sing four roles, the women in his life. It took me a while to work out which singer was singing which role, not helped by the fact that one also pretends to be his mother. All three singers were equally impressive, as was British baritone Ivan Ludlow.

The score was atonal but never displeasing or discordant. The chief interest lay in the weird and wondrous sounds emanating from the pit from no less than 43 items of percussion. From my seat I saw none of them, but I distinctly heard the sound of sandpaper. There were lots of whooshing noises which reminded me of Gerard Hoffnung’s ‘Grand, Grand Overture’ for orchestra and vacuum cleaners (dedicated to President Hoover). One instrument which made its audible presence felt was the delightful cimbalom, a sort of giant zither, prevalent in Hungary and Romania and popular in gypsy music. There was also a long eloquent solo for Holliger’s instrument, the oboe.

This is a black opera in all senses – the sets are almost entirely black, consisting of two fixed and one central sliding black panel, revealing a small black box in which the singers appear. Homoki likes to make his singers appear and disappear as if by magic (to excellent effect in his production of The Flying Dutchman). Costumes are uniformly grey and Victorian. The texts, cleverly assembled by librettist Händl Klaus, concentrate on yearning and death. Some of the words are sung backwards, so ‘schuldig’ becomes an almost unpronounceable ‘Gidluhcs’; there is also some nonsense text, some stuttering, some Latin sayings, much repetition. The mumblings of a lunatic. You get the drift.

The chorus deserve a very special mention: the score demands a very high degree of skill beyond the reach of the ordinary chorus member, so Holliger uses the Basler Madrigalisten, a very small group of professional vocalists, who concentrate on grappling with the intricacies of modern music. They must have rehearsed hard and long to learn this convoluted score and they were more than up the task.

Holliger conducted, and he applauded the orchestra loudly from his curtain call. He hauled Leader Hanna Weinmeister from the pit onto the stage so she could receive some of the applause for her individual and sterling contribution.

It takes courage for an opera house to mount such a work and it is to be hoped that they can fill the house for the remaining six performances. Zurich Opera has a history of being courageous, having premièred Berg’s Lulu and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler.

If you are a fan of Wozzeck, then Lunea is definitely for you.

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment