An excellent performance of Langgaard’s Antikrist but the work itself is at best bewildering

GermanyGermany Langgaard, Antikrist: Soloists, Chorus, Opera-Ballet, and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Hermann Bäumer (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 13.1.2024. (MB)

Deutsche Oper Berlin ‘s Antikrist (premiere 2022) © Thomas Aurin

Director, Set designs – Ersan Mondtag
Revival director – Silke Sense
Costumes – Ersan Mondtag, Annika Lu Hermann
Lighting – Rainer Casper
Choreography – Rob Fordeyn
Dramaturgy – Lara Gebhardt, Carolin Müller-Dohle
Chorus director – Jeremy Bines

Lucifer, A Voice – Thomas Lehman
God’s Voice – Jonas Grundner-Culemann
The Echo of the Air of Mystery – Valeriia Savinskaia
The Air of Mystery – Irene Roberts
The Mouth speaking Great Words – Clemens Bieber
Despondency – Maire Therese Carmack
The Great Whore – Flurina Stucki
The Scarlet Beast – AJ Glueckert
The Lie – Kieran Carrel
Hatred – Philipp Jekal
Dancers – Ashley Wright, Giorgia Bovo, Ana Dordevic, Sakura Inoue, Vasna Felicia Aguilar, Yuri Shimaoka, Joel Donald Small, Shih-Ping Lin, György Jellinek, Miguel Angel Collado

Rued Langgaard’s ‘church opera’ Antikrist is a strange beast. The opera’s first staging was in 1999 at Innsbruck. This, its fourth ever, was due to premiere in 2020, but was delayed for two years on account of the pandemic. I was rather surprised to see a revival at all, let alone a revival with almost no empty seats and an audience so warmly enthusiastic. Limiting this season’s appearances to two, of which this was the first, seems to have been a canny move. I wish I could have shared the audience’s enthusiasm; instead, the work left me bewildered, although the performances seemed excellent.

There are arguments for and against doing one’s homework before experiencing a musical work for the first time. On this occasion, I did not, wanting to be surprised and to approach what I heard with as few preconceptions as I could. Surprised I certainly was, above all by an opera seemingly without plot, by a treatment of the apocalypse somehow devoid of dramatic interest. What we heard at the Deutsche Oper – and what, it seems, is always heard – is a revised version, from 1926-30. I am tempted to say goodness knows what the original (1921-3) was like, given (from what I read) the libretto was completely rewritten and yet still emerged almost comically unsuited to music, let alone drama, let alone both; yet it seems that the first version may have had a little more in terms of plot. At any rate, Langgaard’s own libretto was the determining factor both times in the Royal Danish Theatre’s rejection of the work, and it would be difficult, unless one were a Langgaard cultist (perhaps there are such people), to argue against that verdict. Not, I hasten to add, that the score proved especially convincing.

Deutsche Oper Berlin ‘s Antikrist (premiere 2022) © Thomas Aurin

What we have, here given in a German translation by Inger and Walther Methlagl, amounts to little more than a number of largely unidentified figures – I established that one was the Whore of Babylon and one the Antichrist, and suspected one might be Lucifer, but beyond that was lost – denouncing the lost state of the modern world until an almost literal deus ex machina puts things right. It was not at all clear to me, though this seems to have been the fault of my slowness, from what standpoint this was being presented. Part of me hoped a Nietzschean turn might be taken, but it seems ultimately that Langgaard – I assume his ‘voice’ was presented here as God’s – found all around him filth and depravity and wished to tell us so at great length (just over ninety minutes, but it felt longer). It was as if the ranting of a deranged street preacher were less transformed than converted, editing kept to the bare minimum, into a libretto that somehow must then be set to music. It takes all sorts, I suppose, and there is no intrinsic reason why a reactionary message, perhaps especially one so bizarre as this, should not prove fodder for drama; the problem is more that it does not. Perhaps some find a ‘rejection’ not only of plot, not only of characterisation, but also of drama itself. Again, there is no reason opera should not be postdramatic; much of it is and has been, even avant la lettre. What Langgaard presents, though, seems more incompetent than a positive choice or an aesthetic.

Might the ‘opera’ have been better off as an oratorio? Perhaps, although it would surely still have required major surgery, even a transplant or two. For there is little redemption to be found in the music either. If you like the sound of Wagner and Richard Strauss, but find their musical arguments difficult to follow, perhaps the music ‘itself’ will appeal. Here, phrases uncomfortably close to counterparts in Wagner dramas – all from at least Das Rheingold onwards – are served up randomly with little to connect them, and much the same is done with or to Strauss. Some might call it a collage effect; I could not help but think Langgaard would have been unlikely to survive a Turnitin inspection. There are, to be fair, more promising, even modernistic passages, especially when he writes purely orchestrally. (It is, by the way, difficult to discern much sympathy for the human voice.) Hints – again, arguably more than that – of Hindemith seem more amenable to something approaching sustained musical development, but ultimately they do not lead anywhere. Maybe that is the point, although I fear I may be clutching at straws.

What I can say is that the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, conducted by Hermann Bäumer, played with evident conviction and even pleasure, making as strong a case for the score as is likely to be heard. The chorus, as ever well trained by Jeremy Bines, did likewise, as did the cast. Since neither work nor production gave much in the way of clues as to who anyone was, I shall limit myself to singling out some wonderful singing from Flurina Stucki as ‘The Great Whore’. The other soloists were excellent too, though, as were the dancers, even if some of the choreography – especially that without music, at the beginning – proved more puzzling than revealing. In that respect, one might say it suited the work.

Ersan Mondtag’s production certainly looked good. (The set designs were his too, and he had at least a hand in the costume design.) To me it looked as if Achim Freyer were directing a sequel to La bohème. I am not sure a modern-ish street inhabited by clowns was actually intended as a wry commentary on Langgaard’s claptrap, but to an extent it could be taken as such. What was intended by a car suddenly falling from the sky or the similar aerial suspension of a large figure of a male God with vulva I have no idea, but they gave us something to look at, as did detailed direction of members of cast and chorus. I can only applaud the Deutsche Oper’s courage in granting us a rare opportunity to assess this work for ourselves with such excellent performers. That said, I cannot imagine wishing to do so again.

Mark Berry

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