In Review > International

Charlotte Salomon

SALZBURG
Salzburg Festival
8/2/14

In Review Charlotte Salomon hdl 914
Marianne Crebassa (Charlotte Kann), Frédéric Antoun (Amadeus Daberlohn) and Johanna Wokalek (Charlotte Salomon) in the world premiere of Marc-André Dalbavie's opera at the Salzburg Festival
© Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Walz
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Crebassa and Antoun
© Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Walz
In Review Charlotte Salomon lg 814
Anaïk Morel (Paulinka Bimbam) and Antoun
© Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Waltz

Above the narrow alleys of Salzburg's Old Town hung banners announcing the festival's summertime offerings. Amid well-known titles by Mozart, Strauss and Verdi, one sign stood out for its near-total obscurity: Charlotte Salomon, the name of a new opera by Marc-André Dalbavie about the life and work of a young German-Jewish artist who perished at Auschwitz (seen Aug. 2). 

Dalbavie's work is based on an autobiographical cycle of roughly 800 gouaches, Life? Or Theater?, which Salomon painted between 1940 and 1943, while she was in exile in southern France. In October 1943, Salomon was deported to Auschwitz , where she was murdered at the age of twenty-six. The artworks, which are housed at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, form a scene-by-scene narrative reminiscent of cinema — a graphic novel avant la lettre. Salomon called her work a "Singespiel" and intended it to be accompanied by music, both classical and popular; correspondingly, many of these indications helped formed the musical base of Dalbavie's opera. 

In the abstract, it seemed like an idea that could easily degenerate into pastiche, with musical excerpts strung together clumsily (as was the case with the Berlin Staatsoper's recent Wagner mash-up and head scratcher Rein Gold). It is to Dalbavie's immense credit that he succeeded in fashioning a compelling and grippingly original musical work. To label Charlotte Salomon an opera might be a stretch — the title role is mostly spoken and, until the epilogue, mostly provides narration. This tips the balance heavily in the direction of dramatic theater. What is beyond a doubt, however, is that it is a highly successful work of Musiktheater, to use a useful German term that spans the gamut of musical, operetta and opera. But while one can quibble about what Charlotte Salomon is or isn't, the new work indisputably mirrors the genre-blurring intentions of its source material. 

In the French-German libretto credited to Barbara Honigmann, Salomon's personality is divided across two female characters — the artist, who recalls her formative years in a middle-class Jewish milieu in Berlin under increasing Nazi threat, and her alter ego Charlotte Kann, the protagonist of her "Singespiel." Over the course of the evening, the speaking Charlotte (compellingly inhabited by Johanna Wokalek, a member of Vienna's Burgtheater) provides a kind of "voiceover" in German that gradually moves into more musical territory, becoming a sort of ritualistic, heightened speech in the Epilogue. The singing Charlotte (the fresh-voiced, impassioned mezzo Marianne Crebassa) undergoes the reverse process; performing in French, her vocal line becomes more constrained in range and register until at the end a plateau is reached where artist and creation, having swapped languages and roles, merge into one. 

As with Dalbavie's one previous opera, Gesualdo, which had its premiere in 2010 at Oper Zurich, the interpolated musical material does not stand in opposition to Dalbavie's compositional style. Rather, the musical quotations are convincingly integrated into the fabric of the score, forming an intertextual web of melodic, rhythmic, historical and cultural associations that gives the exciting impression of a work coming to fruition before our very eyes. Over the course of two hours, Charlotte Salomon's life comes gradually into focus in tandem with the score.

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Luc Bondy's production of Charlotte Salomon at the Salzburg Festival
© Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz

Top heavy with its musical quotations — which include several renditions of the Habanera from Carmen (including a 1929 German recording by Salomon's stepmother, the opera singer Paula Lindberg) as well as the Bridal Chorus from Der Freischütz , Schubert lieder, Bach arias and the alto solo from Mahler's Third Symphony, the German folksong "Morgen muss ich fort von hier," popularized by the a cappella quartet The Comedian Harmonists and even a Yiddish love song — the opera grows less and less reliant on these citations, until they disappear entirely in the Epilogue, a brief coda that traces Charlotte's exile in southern France prior to her deportation.  

Dalbavie's background in spectral music was evident in his sensitivity to instrumental and vocal timbres and the interplay between them. Often, steady horns, a controlled hum of strings and dull percussion created a sonic blanket atop which a simple vocal line of sustained notes and short phrases rose and fell. Rarely did the orchestra provide one-to-one support for the vocalists. Rather, Dalbavie often let loose a host of eerie, menacing sonic effects with his swirling, churning orchestrations. He embraced a lyrical, free tonality that enabled him to inject emotion without becoming maudlin. At times, he found unexpected ways to illustrate the plot musically, such as with darting strings for Charlotte's pencil as it sketched a model at the Berlin Academy of Arts or the musical phrases that lurched back and forth like a clock's pendulum for a group of Jewish exiles-to-be. 

The Mozarteum Orchestra, conducted by the composer, seemed firmly prepped, in particular the much-used brass section. A roster of fine singers created their roles with vocal knack and dramatic verve. Chief among them were the already-mentioned Crebassa, Anaïk Morel as Paula Bimbam (a character modeled on Lindberg), Quebecois tenor Frédéric Antoun as Amadeus Daberlohn, the object of both Charlotte and Paula's affection and French baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou as Charlotte's father. 

Luc Bondy shared credit for the premiere's success. The Swiss director realized a distinctive and carefully choreographed production (dedicated to the memory of the late Gerard Mortier) that was performed inside the versatile Felsenreitschule.  The shallow, oblong stage was divided up into individual cells that brought to mind the frames of a filmstrip or the panels of a comic. While the main action was often confined to just one or two chambers, the large singing cast and extras constantly animated the other cells with naturalistic, often quotidian gestures and actions. For most of the evening Wokalek, the actress who played Charlotte Salomon, remained outside of the main frames, sitting with her paintbrush next to a gramophone or — as in the case of a passionate love scene between the other Charlotte and Daberlohn — lolling on her armchair, like an adolescent in a Balthus painting. Gouaches from Life? Or Theater were frequently displayed using a variety of projection techniques — revealed in the light of a follow spot, rippling across the wall as if underwater, gliding gracefully or shown one-by-one to correspond to the libretto. This provided an effective and respectful synthesis of painting and music that seemed in keeping with what Charlotte Salomon herself was after. spacer 

A. J. GOLDMANN

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6