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A Confusion of Languages: Widmann's Babylon

It was as if the circus had come to town: an elitist circus, granted, but still. The tent was pitched inside the National Theater and the ringmasters of La Fura dels Baus hard at work. The spectaculum at hand? Babylon, the new opera by Jörg Widmann.

Jörg Widmann does many things right, foremost among them the rediscovery of sensuality in contemporary opera. High hopes for a contemporary operatic success befitting the all-out effort of the Bavarian State Opera remained with me until well until after intermission, despite many intermediate blows to the solar plexus of discrimination. Weakened eventually, the last bit of hope got knocked out by a soppy, banal ending out of nowhere, when supposed moral insights were being doled out by the liberally maudlin dozen, with schmaltz worthy of a third rate musical. The alleged symbiosis of composer and his suspiciously famous librettist, TV-philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, revealed itself a mirage: The finale is a ring-a-ring-o’-roses accompanied by Sloterdijk’s tired, hokey prose, and off go the protagonists in a rickety slow-motion spaceship to planets far away… ca. 50 feet diagonally away from where they started and where they remained dangling during the postlude until the curtain call.

After more than three hours ambivalence between appreciation and rejection, my baffled mind  cried out: “You have got to be kidding!” Further up in the balconies and gallery, it wasn’t just minds that did the shouting, and Widmann go a solid round of boos even on the night of the second performance.

The opera starts with a lonely lament by a Scorpion Man (delightfully otherworldly, thanks to counter tenor Kai Wessel) in front of the destroyed semi-dystopian ruinscape, accompanied by video projections of busily reconstructing Babylonians and whale-song from crumhorns. With the costumes of Chu Uroz and the lighting of Urs Schönbaum, the impression was like experiencing the title sequence of an as-yet-unmade James Bond film. A conventional chorus chimes in, musically not two corners removed from Carmina Burana, visually with a heavy dose of the original Tron. It feels like a show, pleasant and entertaining, with effective music specifically set to it. So far, so good: that’s pretty much what opera ought to be. The supertitles in cuneiform are a cute touch, if useless for understanding the text. As it turns out, though, that’s still better than having the ungainly German text imposed upon one.

The first and fiercest vocal acrobatics are required asked of Claron McFadden, “The Soul”—the ex-corporeal manifestation of the Judaism that has faded from exiled Jewish protagonist Tammu. Throughout the opera she is obliged  to perform stratospheric feats, fit for a being not of this world. McFadden mastered the ungrateful part impressively, even as her voice threatened to crack underneath the strain early on.

The high priests of superficial stage-hokum, La Fura dels Baus, have a dozen fastened and secured extras build a Tower of Babel with large blocks embossed with various letters of various alphabets, to give obviousness a chance. Later, at the grating climax, the massive tower is toppled to the surprise of no one, given the large safety net that has to be raised before the controlled and tidy disaster is performed. No orchestra musicians were harmed in the making of this opera.

In another incident a human pyramid swirls around—one side Youth and Beauty, drenched sensually in liquid gold, the other Age and Ugliness and Decay and dowsed in viscid pitch. To expect textual elucidation from such intermittently stunning pictures is like expecting a dramatic arch at a Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not show. The Jewish protagonists and priests sport rocket-pack Menorahs, Priest-King Abubu (Willard White), appears as a Michelin-Man high priest, accompanied by his tin-foil seconds.

Finally the true highlight of the opera appears: Babylonian priestess and Tammu-lover Inanna. Or, more precisely, the impossibly charming and enchanting Anna Prohaska, who embodies a rôle so dominant in aesthetic appeal that it seems the whole opera was written around and indeed for her. She descends from above: a tempting upper body in the color of pale-olive clay, statuesque except for a bedazzling brassier; attached to a torso of silver balloons. The titillating appearance makes sense; Inanna represents free love, an offer into which Tammu dips gladly as he hallucinates of the ‘Horror of the Flood’.

The unholy climax before intermission, directly responsible for the considerable amount of attrition after the interval, is a revue - a case of the Widmann-Follies, a “Babylonian Carnival” of Broadway rejects that apes the confusion of languages by throwing every hackneyed piece of music Widmann could find into a bucket and then hurling it back on stage: Bavarian Oompahpah-marches, recycled bits of earlier works of Widmann’s, Trinidadian steel drums, juvenile hit-parade drinking songs, and New Orleans Dixieland. It sounds like Varèse vomiting at the Oktoberfest while two Babylonian partiers play Tron-frisbee in the background. This fourth of seven chapters is named “By the Waters of Babylon”. Any hint of the famous Bach chorale on the same subject remains missing, although Widmann is not afraid of offering a mélange of composer references elsewhere through this opera.

For the duration of a clarinet solo intermezzo—a Widmann signature move—after intermission, faith in Babylon is briefly restored. The scenes, on their way to the all important number seven, get more concise, but Babylon doesn’t get better for it. Next up is an excursion to the Magic Flute, but with ritual human sacrifice. Jussi Myllys’ Tammu is chosen, who even sounds like a stilted Eastern European Tamino. He is sent through fire and water trials (neat stage sets) to prepare for the sacrificial ceremony, accompanied by Beethovenesque choruses. A naked mariachi-band of four trumpeters is on standby, a Rubik’s cube of letters floating above is finally utilized as a sacrificial chamber, with La Fura dels Baus’ apologies to Kubrik’s 2001 Space Odyssey and an MRI scanner. Then Widmann takes a detour via reverse Orfeo ed Euridice by way of Salome: Inanna is intent on getting Tammu out of the underworld. To that end she dances a dance of the seven accessories in front of Death, a cigar-smoking Bassa Selim in drag, sung alternately with falsetto and his natural low bass by Willard White. For all its artistic intentions, it’s no more comfortable than watching a Big Momma or Madea movie. The ears at least get a treat by sounds that could also be Uri Caine’s. Inanna strips her way to success and is allowed to take her love  back from the gates of hell as long as she does not lose sight of him. She manages, since  the task is not exactly  challenging. A good thing, because those two spaceship tickets were probably non-refundable—much like tickets to Babylon.
Just one hearing of such a new work, its ink still wet during rehearsals,  doesn’t allow to judge accurately whether Kent Nagano and his Bavarian State Orchestra succeeded fully… but it is safe to assume that he did: This is thes kind of music, the kind of project, and the kind of complexity that the calm-exuding Nagano excels at, even when he struggles with seemingly easier fare.

When Kaija Saariaho spoke on the subject of opera to aspiring composers, she said the following: Yes, with an opera you can spread your work further, for a variety of reasons, than through any other kind of composition. But never write an opera to get famous. Never do it early in your career, do it only if you absolutely have something to say, and when only that format will do. It would be presumptuous to suggest that Widmann, hardly a greenhorn, didn’t know what he was doing, but the advice from the composer of L’Amour de loin rings true, all the same

It is Babylon’s misfortune to have been burdened by too-high expectations, partly because Widmann’s music should lend itself well to the genre. Comparatively, Babylon did as well or better than many other large-scale operas recently premiered with great fanfare and to high hopes: Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland manages something else, something more intriguing but more forbidding, Tan Dun’s The First Emperor is highbrow rubbish, Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice unnecessarily tedious, Eötvös’ The Tragedy of the Devil (another Munich premiere) just plain unfortunate. Babylon does itself no favors, with a dull libretto about a highfalutin’ story, not to mention musical banality—as if the latter could offset the former. But it also contains plenty promise for a future, more unassuming success… hopefully attained by Widmann’s next project, an opera premiering at the Salzburg Festival and tailored to the splendid Christian Gerhaher.

All pictures (below the jump) courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl