The revival of Beat Furrer’s Violetter Schnee in Berlin again makes a profound impression

GermanyGermany Furrer, Violetter Schnee: Soloists, Vocalconsort Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Matthias Pintscher (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 10.5.2024. (MB)

Beat Furrer’s Violetter Schnee © Monika Rittershaus

Director – Claus Guth
Revival directors – Caroline Staunton, Tabatha McFadyen
Set designs – Étienne Pluss
Costumes – Ursula Kudrna
Video – Arian Andiel
Lighting – Olaf Freese

Silvia – Anna Prohaska
Natascha – Clara Nadeshdin
Jan – Gyula Orendt
Peter – Jaka Mihelač
Jacques – Otto Katzameier
Tanja – Martina Gedeck

Beat Furrer’s Violetter Schnee was one of the last operas I saw, early in 2020 (review click here), before the coronavirus pandemic closed theatres and halls, much else besides, across the world. It fascinated me then and has done again, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden having taken the amply vindicated decision to revive its 2019 premiere production, not for the first but the second time. Broadly, my reaction proved somewhat different – not unusual for re-encountering a work – in that it seemed considerably clearer what was happening dramatically, which certainly includes the musical contribution to that drama, although, probably not unrelated, I felt myself less mesmerised and yet more horrified by its course and outcome.

Timing has doubtless played its part too. It is certainly not the case that in January 2020 all was well with the world, generically or for an Englishman in temporary exile from Brexit-Insel, awaiting the end of one particular aspect of that world. However, the pandemic, followed by further global manmade catastrophes in Ukraine, Sudan, Palestine, and elsewhere, and humankind’s similarly incomprehensible and inexorable determination to destroy what is left of the planet it calls home have taken their toll for all, even for those of us less directly in the (often literal) firing line than others. For this is an apocalyptic, even a post-apocalyptic work – that elision may be important, not only to the work but to our present condition – in which the horror of what we have done to our world stares us in the face. Händl Klaus’s libretto, after Vladimir Sorokin, and Furrer’s score alike fuse, so that one can hardly tell what came first, with Claus Guth’s production and of course performances onstage and from the pit to present what, by most readings, would seem a hopeless episode in which climate change has done what we as a species have willed it to do.

The ‘violet snow’ of the title is key: is this world – are we – on the way to a frozen future, a new Ice Age echoing the world of the drama’s lynchpin, Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow? Or will it continue to warm, as the characters speak and sing of strangely warm snow, albeit while they all the while wrap up for winter, might suggest. Is the final coming of a violet sun – we see that, for ourselves, unlike the ‘violet snow’, which looks like any other, leading us to ask whether it might be a mirage – the end, or a second chance, an entry to the new world with which technology-soothsayers would seduce us? Paired characters react differently, yet perhaps to no avail, their ensembles ultimately suggesting frenetic futility, and seem at one point to settle, perhaps not unreasonably yet chillingly, on nihilistic partying, before moving on to confront once again the cold, dark world beyond their flat. In a sense, it has all been foretold in the opening scene but one, the first without words or characters, in which Tania, a spoken role played unforgettably by Martina Gedeck, sees Breughel’s painting at a museum, becomes transfixed and ultimately collapses, only to wake up (I think) in the dwelling of the others.

Furrer’s orchestral writing seems both to drive long-term change in something akin to Klangfarbenmelodie that often, tellingly, suggests electronic sounds without including them, and also to heighten passages and moments of particular drama. Vocal writing, though doubtless enormously complex and difficult, is as it is for a reason: this is no easy situation, nor should any of us pretend it is. Something, we feel throughout, has already happened, as well as is about to happen. It is probably too late, but what if it is not? I recalled a very different work, with goings-on both very different yet in a sense not so different as they first may have seemed: Thomas Adès’s Buñuel-derived The Exterminating Angel. Not the least suggestion I gleaned here was that I should give that opera, which I admit to having been nonplussed by when I first saw it, like many other things another chance.

We surely owe each other that, as we dance on the edge – or beyond it – of the volcano, just as we owe thanks to an outstanding team of musical collaborators led by Matthias Pintscher, all directing their contributions to a common goal. Their voices, individual and in ensemble, eventually joined by the excellent Vocalconsort Berlin, had something to tell us, but would we, could we, listen? Their inability to hear – how, after all, can one hear snow – warned us, as did the mildness of the evening as we spilled out once more onto Unter den Linden, a very different experience from the January performance I attended and doubtless the January of the previous year. Would we simply dissolve into a world that has already been damaged, as voices did time and time into the orchestra, and/or would we emerge once again from it? Can we defy the brutal, surprising, yet necessary stop with which the opera came to a halt?

Mark Berry

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