The Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s penetrating revival of Beat Furrer’s Violetter Schnee

GermanyGermany Beat Furrer, Violetter Schnee: Soloists, Vocalconsort Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Matthias Pintscher (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 10.1.2020. (MB)

Beat Furrer’s Violetter Schnee (c) Monika Rittershaus

Director – Claus Guth
Set designs – Étienne Pluss
Costumes – Ursula Kudrna
Video – Arian Andiel
Lighting – Olaf Freese

Silvia – Anna Prohaska
Natascha – Elsa Dreisig
Jan – Gyula Orendt
Peter – Georg Nigl
Jacques – Otto Katzameier
Tanja – Martina Gedeck
Dancers – Uri Burger, Alexander Fend, Gernot Frischling, Annekatrin Kiesel, Victoria McConnell, Filippo Serra

The word Gesamtkunstwerk should probably be retired – especially with respect to Wagner, who, not that one would know from 99%+ of the ‘literature’, barely used it. Or perhaps it should not, so long as we separate it from Wagner and acknowledge a broader context and understanding, both preceding and following the Master of Bayreuth (or, better, the ‘artwork of the future’). For Gesamtkunstwerk retains a certain ‘ideal’ force in many respects, just as do, say, ‘epic’ and ‘postdramatic’ theatre, both of which will generally be understood partly as reactions to it. In 2020, any serious consideration of one, be it theoretical, practical, or both, will almost certainly entail consideration of the others. This evening, the first of two revival performances of Beat Furrer’s 2019 opera, Violetter Schnee, elicited such thoughts of quasi-Adornian Rettung in that I found it difficult as well as undesirable to try to separate Claus Guth’s production from either work or performance. Whether you call that a Gesamtkunstwerk matters little; however, depending on your standpoint, perhaps the idea’s modernist heritage will. At any rate, I shall not attempt to dissect, but rather to give an impression of the whole, illusory or otherwise.

Those of us who spend a good deal of time in museums and art galleries will have been familiar, perhaps too familiar, with the scene of the opening. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Die Jäger im Schnee enjoys – and suffers – a painting’s usual fate, at least when not snowed under by visitors. However, one visitor, Tanja (played in distinctive, declamatory fashion by actress Martina Gedeck), takes more notice, becomes immersed, affording the starting point for something, like snow, difficult and undesirable to pin down: an aesthetic, but perhaps also a dramatic, odyssey. That, at least is how it might seem; or does the world that emerges from the painting, breathtakingly constructed from enlargement and development of its detail by Guth’s team (Étienne Pluss, Ursula Kudrna, Arian Andiel, and Olaf Freese), actually exist first, and give rise to her visit, perhaps to the painting too? Apocalypse deferred or frozen in both soon seems neither to have been deferred nor frozen at all.

Winter snow may be an object of aesthetic contemplation for us: more so than ever in an age of ecological catastrophe in which we rightly fear that soon we may never see it again, or we may see little else. It is too for the cast, led by spellbinding performances from sopranos Anna Prohaska and Elsa Dreisig, pure, seductive, and dangerous as the falling and driven snow. Yet it is also for them the key to catastrophe; any attempt to distinguish seems once again to miss the point. Where some characters, if one may call them that, acknowledge that – Otto Katzameier’s Jan most consistently – others seem, or is that just us as spectators, more partial. A house in which characters are trapped, from which they continually escape to the rooftop to experience the snow that will claim them soon enough, offers form, visual, dramatic, even musical; or so we imagine. At any rate, its confines, like those of the score, those of the stage, those of the opera house, both permit and prevent our eyes and ears zooming in on detail – as in (imaginary outsider?) Tanja’s (imaginary?) gallery.

Furrer’s word-setting acknowledges and extends partiality and wholeness of experience, yet also calls them into question. Its metrical intricacies do not merely mirror the snow; do they perhaps in some aesthetic, even aestheticising sense, incite or create it? Shifting orchestral timbres, Klangfarbenmelodien for an age in which snow might eventually turn violet, seem at times to form the basis for pitch, rhythm, and other parameters, at other times to carry on regardless: like snow, like humans lost therein. What about the meantime? Those humans might ask each other that, but do they, and what would be the point? Maybe there is no meantime, for the end is soon upon us. Guided by Matthias Pintscher’s typically expert direction of the superlative Staatskapelle Berlin, we know and yet do not know that the magic of a Gesamtkunstwerk, of nature, of art, of aesthetic contemplation, of activism, have passed before us and yet also have not. Sun will come, will vanquish – and it does. Viole(n)t snow and life? Certainly. Why? Who knows and who cares? Frame and stage remain: faithful reflection, artifice, or both?

Mark Berry

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