Switzerland Verdi, Messa da Requiem: Soloists, Ballett Zürich, Chorus and Supplementary Chorus of the Opernhaus Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Karina Canellakis (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, 22.11 and 7.12.2019. (CCr)
Director and Choreographer – Christian Spuck
Set designers – Christian Schmidt and Florian Schaaf
Costumes – Emma Ryott
Lighting – Martin Gebhardt
Choir director – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Michael Küster, Claus Spahn
Soprano – Guanqun Yu
Mezzosoprano – Agnieszka Rehlis
Tenor – Stephen Costello
Bass – Georg Zeppenfeld
Dancers of Ballett Zürich
How much religion can opera bear? Thomas Mann’s experiences come to mind. He was the writer who most contended with the intoxication and meaning of music, and as a youth was torridly devoted to Wagner’s music. At 34 he heard a performance of Parsifal, the most literally sacred opera, and considered it ‘too late’ in his life to continue to enjoy; the work’s religiosity and Wagner’s personal flaws left Mann considering the work tiresome. Even in the last years of his life there are diary entries attesting to Parsifal as a ‘mad, singular, almost monstrous work’. Yet there were other evenings, throughout his life, when a performance would leave him spiritually speechless, profoundly moved.
How much agnosticism can religious music bear? Verdi’s Requiem Mass may be less mad than Parsifal, but as a nominally liturgical work of an abstracted nature, it is just as peculiar, and with its harrowing ‘Dies irae’ in parts almost monstrous. A performance of it can obviously be profoundly moving. Christian Spuck, director of the Zurich ballet, has admired this music of Verdi’s since he was 17 and heard it on repeat while studying Kafka. So, he has given us a ballet of it. (Premiered in 2016, it is being brought back now for a second, sold-out run.)
As if Kafka indelibly informed Spuck’s vision of Verdi’s work, there is in his choreography a fair amount of fear, much helplessness, and a great sense of anguish at removal from normal life. Of course, the main concern is death. It is all unframed, guessed at, danced to with no narrative and little direct symbolism. The only Christianity is in the Latin text, which Verdi himself modified from strict church tradition and which Spuck’s production only sings, with no supertitles. You’d have to be either a priest or a scholar to be able to discern the literal Latin ‘libretto’ and then link it emotionally from moment to moment within the choreography. The ‘displaced’ music, thus stripped of all formal religion and diluted in its ties to words, is meant to become something entirely intuited, felt, absorbed. The dancing is the same.
What kind of viewing does such abstraction make for? Long, exposed passages that resist facile interpretation but that also do not necessarily seize the imagination. If your search is for meaning, then it is your task to chase it.
Take the dancing of the ‘Lacrimosa’. A gothically romantic pas de deux (Elizabeth Wisenberg with William Moore, who dances a convulsing, kinetically squalid ‘Dies irae’ elsewhere in the piece) lilts its way around the mezzo’s singing (Agnieszka Rehlis, the first among equals of the magnificent soloists). The woman who is dancing is vacillating between vigour and frailty. The man, in black, is propping her up, spurring her on, perhaps controlling her, perhaps tormenting. The bass (the wondrous Georg Zeppenfeld, reprising his role from the premiere) joins the mezzo in harmony, and the pas de deux begins again.
This time the ballerina appears to faint; her partner seems to constrain her, she almost sleeps, he braces her back, turns her as he bears her completely on his front, and finally eases her down for a view of something horrible, some abyss at her feet. But for this glance at the terror below them, the dancing is nakedly sober. The corps de ballet is now arching around them for a grim grand pas. Verdi’s music is by this point swelling (thanks to a Philharmonia Zürich capable of muscular colour, led by Karina Canellakis), and all four soloists are joined by the chorus (sounding and moving as good as a chorus can sound and move). It is an arresting moment. The ballerina nearly exits the stage in a porté by her partner before they sync back into the corps, the mens’ backs to the audience, the women facing us fearingly. Then a new porté, at the apex of the music, twists a new dancer even higher, a cadaverous trophy, her beautiful gown longer, textured, funereal. This new pair dances to ‘Pie Jesu’, the same sequence again, finally exiting gravely to the word ‘Amen’.
To begin to interpret the scene is involuntary; to delve deeper would seem against the spirit of the piece, since there is nothing to be concluded, only surmised. We cannot settle on a single idea to explain the ‘Lacrimosa’ pas de deux, such as the comfort of love, since the beauty of the dancing comes by being ambiguous and antithetical. In the tightest moments, the forces of open-door abstraction mystify the admirer; in the slackest ones, Spuck’s idiom stays stolid and opaque. It is in those moments when the original ambiguity, Verdi’s animus towards the Church amidst his aestheticisation of its liturgy of death, would be better off left standing alone.
There is nothing in the dancing so lugubrious as to dwell on the despair, nor is there any exuberance so bold as to quicken the spirits. Not even in the ‘Sanctus’, in which two men again carry an airy, supine female figure, twirling her with grand amenity as the chorus sings ‘Hosanna’. If you are fluent in ballet, you might discern deeper storytelling, either within an individual tableau or throughout the recurring appearances; the other sequences often summon a series of momentary protagonists, all of them women, some of them appearing to mirror each other at different poles of life, of age, of nescience and experience. (Elena Vostrotina and Giulia Tonelli are excellent here, and the waifish wraith of Yen Han, the prima who frames the ballet with an aura all her own, dances with agonising lightness and an eternity of line).
Spuck’s greatest artistry, that which best justifies his interweaving of new dance with Verdi’s masterpiece, may be the most basic scenic ideation he uses to display his entire premise of this piece. God is not a judge and life is a form of purgatory and we are trapped in a dungenous concrete box and scribble on its walls.
This bleak vision comes to full transfigurative fruition in the haunting final ‘Libera me’, and tellingly it involves a soprano (Guanqun Yu, not always bold enough in timbre to cut through the sound-mass, but achingly expressive) pleading in familiar operatic form for deliverance. Dressed in a pitch-black sort of anti-wedding gown and serving as a mortal voice of the ashen Yen Han (here in a climactic pas de deux with the placid but heroic Filipe Portugal), the soprano is joined by the chorus bathed in new brown light, the colour of the soil to which she must return. Her single voice beseeches, the choir’s collective hushingly consoles, and the lights go out. What follows first is an almost desperate applause, the standing adulation of an audience seemingly grateful for the stone solemnity of this work. What really follows, when the applause has long ceased to peal, is anyone’s guess. How very good of Verdi and Spuck not to give us theirs, but to ask the question all the same.