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Notes from the 2010 Salzburg Festival ( 4 )

Wolfgang Rihm • Dionysus

Coming to critical conclusions, in all their hazy mix of inevitable subjectivity and aspired-to objectivity, hasn’t anything to do with illusions of infallibility… it has more to do with certainty about aim, effect, efficiency. But especially aim. I know that when I listen to Verdi, for example. It’s not hard to discern that even his ‘dramatic’ works have merit; all around me they are embraced. Even as the music and orchestration in at least some of them—Nabucco comes to mind—is second rate. What I lack (until now; but working on it) is an understanding of the aim that these operas have. What are the conventions to which Verdi obviously caters, and what their merits? I may still not like it, even still dismiss them, once I know. But at least I could appreciate them for how well (or not) they are what they are and do what they do.

This all by way of saying: I had no inhibitions pronouncing the fourth part of Wolfgang Rihm’s Tutuguri—Poème dansé (Bild Kreuze … das Hufeisen … [die sechs Männer … der Siebte …]”) shtick with sticks. Even if there is much labor and thought behind a work, if the result is transparently banal, no alleged or actual depth can lift it from banality to a suddenly understood masterpiece. I have inhibitions, however, interpreting my personal dislike of Rihm’s opera Dionysus as the direct result of the work, rather than my incomprehension.

Superficially, Dionysus makes obvious references by the bucket load. Protagonist “N” is Nietzsche. The water nymphs torturing him in the opening are more than just Rheingold-inspired. The other main character “The Guest”, with guest being “Gast” in German, is a none-too-subtle hint at Nietzsche’s disciple-composer-friend-editor Heinrich Köselitz (a.k.a. Peter Gast). Ariadne is Cosima Wagner. Enacted biographical details that Mann similarly used for his Dr. Faustus, like the visit in a bordello. The (not quite yet dead) horse that is being beaten in the last act is the one in front of which Nietzsche (allegedly) threw himself in Turin to save it from the whip of its owner. From the letters he wrote in his last lucid moments after that collapse and other late works, Rihm assembled a text that follows no particular order or obvious logic. The whole Apollonian-Dionysus principles are played out (including the rather literal skinning of Nietzsche), but not in a way that had me find anything to hold on to. A colleague far better equipped to eke out sense of such works also suggested Moses & Aron (‘the inability to speak the word’) as alluded to by Rihm… and found much in the first two acts (though even he shrugged after the third and fourth).

Yet another, German, colleague who had seen the premiere a couple days earlier, reported back his being shocked, outright shocked, at the conservative music. I latched happily on his vivid description of a sound of a hypothetical 150 year old Richard Strauss composing today. I heard a few moments that were immediately and wholly pleasing and even searing, to be sure. But my idea of a 150 year old Richard Strauss must otherwise differ considerably from that of that arts critic. Punishing writing for voices, accentuations of phrases (perhaps the singers’ fault) that made neither sense textually or psychologically, and ungainly singing from the protagonists, bass-baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle (“N”) and tenor Matthias Klink [sic] (“A Guest”) put up a musical front that I found disinviting. Whether Kränzle in particular was asked to sing with a billy-goat vibrato or whether it was the result of a fiendishly difficult and taxing part, the result was still ugly. On the upside, it made the vocal beauty of Mojca Erdmann (“Ariadne”) stand out more.

Jonathan Meese designed the stage under Pierre Audi’s direction. A direction that happily ignored all of Rihm’s very detailed, almost old-fashioned descriptions in the score as to how the stage should be set and look—and that for the premiere performance. Remembering the strong, precise, and focused visual language, visually appealing staging by Friedkin for Das Gehege I thought that maybe, at least for the premiere, until audiences have achieved some kind of familiarity and understanding with the complex musical and literal underpinnings of the opera, such an opera deserves a literal, supportive direction. Heck, it’s the only time in my opera-going life where I wished for a Zeffirelli production. Bring out the elephants, or at least the real horse. Give me an actual rowboat, give me real reed banks and literal mountaintops.

Give me something, anything to grasp when elsewhere I am still grasping at straws. Not the deliberately crude, platitude- and irony-laced visual language of Meese. TOTAL JAPAN. NIETZSCHE SAKE. DRINK DIONYSUS-SAKE. [Nietzsche’s Alps are transplanted to Mt. Fuji, you see.] ACHTYNG MEESEWOLFBABY. BABYANIMALISM. TOTAL REVOLUTION. These, or similar, phrases in thick black brush strokes don’t so much help as remind me of my trying-too-hard-to-be-clever bored doodles during math and physics class. My favorite: “TOTAL HORSEBEE”. That’s incidentally my instinctive feeling about the opera, but it can’t be my conclusion (yet) for lack of the tools to judge it well by. I left the Haus für Mozart with a feeling of having failed.

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