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In Memoriam Aribert Reimann: His Lear in Frankfurt (2008)

In memory of Aribert Reimann, who passed away on March 13th, nine days after his 88th birthday, I post this hitherto unpublished review of the 2008 Frankfurt Opera premiere of his most important stage work, Lear, in Keith Warner's production. Re-listening to Medea recently, I found myself taken aback by the sheer ugliness of Reimann's music, the "dead-on-arrival avant-garde hideousness", found it to be "joyless, deliberately ungainly music, 30-years behind its time when it premiered in 2010", and how it was "music to feel clever, by pretending to like it." Part of it will have been the lack of visible drama, which, as I suggest below, is important, possibly essential to make anything of this music at all. And, in Lear's defense, it came more than 30 years before Medea. This prompted a brief exchange with a colleague who thought (and wrote), already around the time of the premiere of Lear, that the opera was overrated - to which a critical outcry predictably followed promptly. True: Not all music that is difficult and first appears ungainly is The-Emperor's-New-Clothes-Music. And yet, there is a line, eventually, for each of us, that we would not cross for purely musical purposes. Where is that line and is it important? These are all thoughts that came back up, re-reading my 16-year old review, written with the milk of human kindness still sloshing liberally within me. Perhaps partly not to look the dunce. And partly because it's not like I didn't in enjoy the evening some way. Anyway, here it is.

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Aribert Reimann,
Wolfgang Koch et al.
Frankfurt Opera, S.Weigle

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Aribert Reimann,
Frankfurt Opera, E.Nielsen

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Aribert Reimann,
Fischer-Dieskaus et al.
Bavarian State Opera, G.Albrecht

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…und soll es Tod bedeuten
Song arrangements & SQ4t#3
Petersen Quartet, C.Schäfer

Gabor Halasz called Aribert Reimann’s 1978 opera Lear “the great music-theater achievement of the [70s], probably the most important opera since [Bernd Alois] Zimmermann’s The Soldiers. The work’s premiere in Munich – a Jean-Pierre Ponelle production, conducted by Gerd Albrecht and with the work’s initiator Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role and Dieskau’s wife Julia Varady as Cordelia – was a smashing success with critics and audiences alike – even conservative ears.

Dieskau first suggested the topic to Reimann in 1968 and nudged him to pursue it. What Reimann didn’t know until long after he finished his Lear, is that Dieskau also pitched the idea of a Lear-opera to Britten who, however, chose to compose Death in Venice, instead.

How much of Lear’s success depended on Dieskau’s participation and Ponelle’s inspired, beautiful production was once again, for the 21st time, put to the test in the Frankfurt Opera’s season-opening premiere of their Keith Warner production on September 28th. Not very much, as it turns out, as long as the theatrical direction is as extraordinary as it was in Frankfurt.

Lear's effectiveness is critically dependent on the theatrical element and makes a primarily theatrical impression – not unlike Henze’s Bassarids, but without the latter’s relatively luscious grand operatic musical moments. Lear is essentially theater music (a hint of Maurizio Kagel), and its considerable success abroad has undoubtedly been due to the use of the respective vernacular. Like the San Francisco production (where Thomas Stewart took the title role) which used the translation of Desmond Clayton.

The music alone is dense and difficult stuff; wild and loud plenty and even grating at times. Suppose you only read Claus H. Henneberg’s analysis of it: You’d have to imagine a series of shrieking vocal parts and jarring string and brass chord clusters, one piled upon another – interrupted only occasionally with the tone rows that represent Cordelia and Edgar, or the string quartet that accompanies the Fool’s simple songs.

What is true enough in theory gets a life of its own on stage. Even if the tone-rows don’t obviously reveal the relationship between Cordelia and Edgar as being the sole characters aiming at a common, noble goal, the semi-tone steps of their tone rows (Edgar’s is developed out of Cordelia’s by switching the first and last six-note sequences; see below) are in marked and notable contrast to the shrill sounds of Goneril and Regan. Clusters of sounds may dominate much of the score, but since the music works as support for the theatrical element and dramatizes the story with sound, it isn’t (necessarily) perceived as unnecessarily spiky and brutal. Indeed, it was astounding how vividly it depicted the various moods and actions on stage – madness, wistful longing, and of course wickedness and massive brutality. The 30-year-old music, still sounding more modern than much that is composed these days, doesn’t aim to make it easy for the audience, it aims to be true to Shakespeare’s drama.

After Lear proclaims his first sentence “We have ordered you here / to divide our empire / before your eyes among our daughters”, the music clamps down on the aging King which Reimann describes as an iron grate thrown shut, imprisoning the actors for the rest of the play.

Warner depicts this opening scene with three windows, covered with Venetian blinds, which reveal the royal family as a still life. The elaborate costumes by Kaspar Glarner are a mix of styles with Victorian touches, silk wallpaper, and flat screens that depict the division of the empire. In its way tried, but visually appealing and mirroring the opera’s last scene, when the mad Lear (Wolfgang Koch) sits amid the various dead and the few left living personae with strangled Cordelia (Britta Stallmeister) spread on his lap.

In striking contrast to the naturalistic moor-landscape of Lear’s mad scene that Ponelle put on stage, Stage Designer Boris Kudlička shifts the entire set to the left, revealing an enormous, stage-filling landfill. An intriguing setting for the mad scene, indeed – although it might have been more impressive if the upper reaches of Mount Trash, which Edgar-cum-Tom climbed and descended from, hadn’t wobbled like a lambs’ tail. At the end of the scene and the first act, Graham Clark’s well-acted, pronounced, and declaimed Fool asphyxiates himself with a plastic bag.

A large warehouse housed much of the first act and the torture scene of the second, weren’t the inspired touches, even if they worked well enough. Those came largely in the second act, where the opera’s excellent “Frankfurt Museum Orchestra” under the very impressively controlling and stirring leadership of music director Sebastian Weigle played yet more cohesively and with greater brilliance.

Starting with the second scene, the stage was emptied entirely, even as the warehouse-feel remained. When Reimann lets various parties, though separated in space, appear simultaneously on stage to sing their depiction of the events, they are separated by a wall of rain at least as wide as a third of the stage’s width and circling, evocatively lit (lighting by Davy Cunningham), above the protagonists. In almost playful interaction with the rain and – though unaware – each other, Cordelia laments, Goneril and Edmund plot, and Cornwall is led to Dover by Tom. It is a captivating, entrancing segment – as was the terrifying hanging scene that followed – that could scarcely have failed to draw in even those in the audience, who never could make amends with the music.

Among a very fine cast without real weaknesses, Wolfgang Koch’s supremely acted and pleasantly rough Lear stood out as convincingly mad and torn, as did Martin Wölfel in Edgar’s countertenor/tenor part. Goneril (a splendidly acting Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet) and Regan (Carline Whisnant) were appropriately shrill, though both could have been more precise. Stallmeisteister’s Cordelia remained a little pale, while Frank van Aken’s Edmund as well as Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Gloster earned dramatic and vocal accolades.

Judging from the nearly sold-out house and the surprisingly enthusiastic audience response, the Frankfurt Opera is right in having already planned to revive this production in 2011. Since DG’s recording has been long out of print, it’s good that OEHMS Classics has recorded this performance for release in 2009, although a DVD would have made more sense.

Photos © Barbara Aumüller

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