Roman Haubenstock-Ramati’s 1966 opera Amerika is a discovery worth the journey to Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Amerika: Soloists, Dancers, Philharmonia Zurich / Gabriel Feltz (conductor). Zurich Opera, 9.3.2024. (MF)

Zurich Opera’s Amerika © Herwig Prammer

Director – Sebastian Baumgarten
Set and Costumes – Christina Schmitt
Choreography– Takao Baba
Lighting – Elfried Roller
Videography – Robi Voigt
Sound direction – Oleg Surgutschow
Sound design – Rahael Paciorek
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn

Karl Rossmann – Paul Curievici
Stoker / Pollunder / Robinson / First Tramp – Robert Pomakov
The Head Waiter / Delamarche / Second Tramp / The Chief of Staff of the Great Nature Theatre – Georg Festl
Klara / Therese – Mojca Erdmann
Uncle Jacob / The Head Porter / The Director of the Great Nature Theatre – Ruben Drole
Brunelda – Allison Cook
The Head Chef – Irène Friedli
Speaker 1 / The Student / First Clerk / Court Agent – Benjamin Mathis
Speaker 2 / Second Clerk / Election Candidate – Sebastian Zuber

Dancers – Solomon Quaynoo, Pouria Abbasi, Yvonne Barthel, Natalie Bury, Kemal Dempster, Theodor Diedenhofen, Steven Forster, Evelyn Angela Gugolz, Michaela Kvet, Elisa Pinos Serrano, Anna Virkkunen, Oriana Zeoli

This remarkable evening’s first notes ring out from the back of a dark auditorium. It takes extraordinary performative efforts to put on Polish composer Roman Haubenstock-Ramati’s Amerika, based on Franz Kafka’s novel The Man Who Disappeared (Der Verschollene; posthumously published as Amerika). 80 loudspeakers are distributed around the theatre, a massive sound engineering deck is arranged in the stalls, three orchestras (one live in the pit and two pre-recorded) interpret the score, 21 characters are played by ten singers and the lighting is, according to the stage directions, a participant to the action in its own right.

Originally planned for 2021 and at the time victim to Covid-related restrictions, Zurich opera kept its promise and staged this unusual opera, right on time for the 100th anniversary of Kafka’s death in 2024. Amerika was composed in the early 1960s and had its world premiere in Berlin 1966 where the management, evidently suffering from severe lack of confidence in their own production, distributed leaflets kindly encouraging the audience to withhold any expression of displeasure until the end of the performance.

The Man Who Disappeared is Kafka’s first novel, which he set aside as a 300-page fragment in 1912 and never completed. It tells the story of Karl Rossmann, an unfortunate 17-year-old Czech whose family throw him out with a one-way ticket on a passenger ship to New York after he has been sexually abused by a maidservant who ended up pregnant. It is the first of numerous misadventures from which he keeps emerging as the innocent culprit. He soon meets a man who claims to be his uncle. The uncle is rich and takes him in. Luck seems to be on Karl’s side until he is invited to a vast country estate by a certain Mr. Pollunder, from whence he is never allowed to return to the uncle’s home. The protagonist’s odyssey leads him onwards and into social decline. He gets involved with petty criminals, experiences capitalist exploitation as a liftboy at Hotel Occidental, becomes dependent on Brunelda, a fallen singing diva, and is pushed around, taken advantage of and banished. Ultimately, he signs up with an obscure acting company, the ‘Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’. The reader will never know how things end for Karl.

Haubenstock-Ramati was born in 1919 in Krakow and died in 1994 in Vienna. Having himself been displaced countless times and forced to migrate between Western Europe, the Eastern parts of Siberia, Uzbekistan and Israel, he had a particular interest in Karl Rossmann’s fate. His score is testimony to the visionary approach the composer took. He conceived soundscapes which at the time the piece was first staged were technologically impossible to realise. Haubenstock-Ramati settled on twenty-five separate scenes based on various parts of the novel. Departing from the concept of linear narration, the composer expressly declared the scenes to be freely arrangeable. The sound is dominated by beating tone sequences and glissandi, the latter symbolising the protagonist’s ever shifting reality.

None of the cautionary measures taken in 1966 by the management in Berlin were necessary in Zurich. The enchanted audience greatly approved of the performance. The team around German director Sebastian Baumgarten, set and costume designer Christina Schmitt and Japanese-German urban dance choreographer Takao Baba create an enthralling full-on immersive surround sound and light experience. They bring to life the absurdity, the menace and also the humour Kafka wove into his text. The set is an elaborate kaleidoscope of traditional props such as suitcases and architectural models on the one hand and, on the other, large-scale projections, suggestive videography and eerie light sculptures.

Karl’s (Paul Curievici) transatlantic journey and arrival in New York is a tracking shot, initially looking backwards on the moving waters. In an instantaneous change, the perspective shifts to the front of the vessel. Now riding towards the New World, the promises of the Declaration of Independence of 1776 fade in like street signs, promising the newcomer the ‘self-evident truth that all men are created equal’ and the ‘unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Once arrived, Karl witnesses the Statue of Liberty being carried in and shoved into a cash register; true to Kafka’s prescient text, it is wielding a sword rather than holding up the torch of enlightenment. Scene No.9, Conjectures on an empty house, is set in the country estate where Karl almost loses his way. With no cast members on stage, Karl’s inner states are depicted by way of a dream sequence. The three orchestras accompany mostly black and white lights and smoky projections. Inside the dark country estate, the furniture is made up of mere outlines sharply lit in red and white.

Having been expelled from the country estate where he was abused by Klara (Mojca Erdmann), Karl manages to secure a job as a liftboy at the Hotel Occidental. It is a gigantic structure with a main gate, three central gates, ten side gates and countless doors and doorless exits where Karl is part of a colourfully clad though strictly hierarchic and brutal cluster of employees. Their ceaseless bustling leads nowhere, it is devoid of all purpose and meaning. On a whim of the Head Porter (Ruben Drole), Karl is once more let go for no good cause and joins the singer Brunelda (Allison Cook), initially a glamorous cross between Dalila and Jessica of Who Framed Roger Rabbit who ends up miserably, drowned in the bath by one of her servants. On his own yet again, Karl joins the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Its spooky troupe, headed by the Director (again Ruben Drole), concludes the evening with a pantomime ballet, a nativity play performed by a dozen characters including the frog prince and an unhealthy-looking version of the Little Mole, the famous Czech cartoon hero. Following Kafka’s text and Haubenstock-Ramati’s score, the production deliberately eschews a final conclusion. We are left with a mixture of unsettling childhood dreams, hope for love and fear of displacement.

Paul Curievici (Karl) and Mojca Erdmann (Klara) in Zurich Opera’s Amerika © Herwig Prammer

The singers mostly perform in atonal Sprechgesang, taking on up to four different roles. The ensemble visibly enjoyed the challenge. Since the last performance of this work goes back over 30 years, it was an evening of role debuts. English tenor Paul Curievici (his spoken parts with perhaps a tad too much of an accent) was a help- and hapless Karl Rossmann, who nonetheless never gave up hope. One of his main adversaries was the Head Porter Ruben Drole, with his customarily lively stage presence and sonorous bass-baritone. Canadian bass Robert Pomakov, sporting a hipster beard, was an imposing Pollunder. German soprano Mojca Erdmann gave a terrifying Klara, dominating and violating Karl during his stay in the country estate. Brunelda was impressively sung by British mezzo-soprano Allison Cook with her spectacular coloratura.

The evening would not have been the same without the dancers, choreographed by Takao Baba. Their varied dance styles, pantomime acting and collective and individual comic talent broadened the performance’s artistic dimension. It was upon them to bring the work’s Kafka-esque element to the stage by being in constant movement that went nowhere. And duly deliver they did.

Gabriel Feltz conducted the Philharmonia Zurich in the pit, precisely in sync with the two pre-recorded orchestras. This musical journey through space and time alike is supported by the irony that the orchestral pre-recording had already taken place in view of the original staging in 2021, a performance that is now played back from a veritable time capsule.

With Amerika, Zurich opera carries forward its tradition of bringing modern music theatre to the stage, as it has done recently with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Soldaten, Wolfgang Rihm’s Hamletmaschine, Heinz Holliger’s Lunea and Helmut Lachenmann’s Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern.

This Amerika is a production worthy of being discovered.

Further performances run until 13 April 2024.

Michael Fischer

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