South Pole
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South Pole

Bavarian State Opera

In Review South Pole hdl 416
Villazón and Hampson as Scott and Amundsen
© Wilfried Hösl

THE BAVARIAN STATE OPERA presented the world premiere of South Pole, subtitled “a double opera in two parts,” on January 31 in the Nationaltheater. Czech composer Miroslav Srnka and Australian playwright Tom Holloway, who previously collaborated on Make No Noise for the company in 2011, created an opera inspired by the competing expeditions to the South Pole between 1910 and 1912. Two teams were engaged in the race to be the first to reach the Pole—a victorious Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) and a doomed British team headed by Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912).  

The jealousy, triumph, hardship, intrigue and death that dominated the race to the South Pole are themes that have been dealt with by opera composers throughout the ages. Less familiar in the opera house are the overwhelming natural obstacles faced by Amundsen and Scott—the freezing cold, a landscape consisting of nothing but snow and ice, the color everywhere a blinding white. How to translate these impressions into music? Srnka employed a huge orchestra augmented by twenty-two different types of percussion, which were saved for the many interludes, and for scenes of great dramatic intensity. Srnka’s compositional style is inventive rather than modern or conservative. The setting of the English-language text ranges from a cappella vocal lines to large-scale singing over the full orchestra. The singers are required to accomplish much rangy jumping from low to high notes, so it can be strenuous for the listener to filter out a melody. There was a preponderance of loud singing coming from all participants, which lent each episode a sameness. 

Symmetry was a unifying factor in music, text and in Hans Neuenfels’s remarkably good production. Upon entering the auditorium, one was confronted with a scrim of pure white. The stage behind it was divided into two equal platforms and was likewise white, with only touches of gray and black. Sets were by Katrin Connan and Neuenfels himself, costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. Some of the action for the two teams takes place simultaneously, to similar texts, with Amundsen’s team generally singing a bit in advance of Scott’s team, musically suggesting Amundsen’s head start. Though neither the teams nor their commanders ever encountered each other in Antarctica, by placing them in separate but equal worlds, this production and this opera link their destinies inextricably. Scott and Amundsen have several monologues; there are scenes in which the two express their doubts and emotions at the same time. 

Added to the cast of ten singers are recurring visions of Scott’s wife, a strong woman about whom Scott is insanely jealous, and a Norwegian landlady with whom Amundsen supposedly had a love affair, and who later committed suicide when he abandoned her. Both of these women haunt their respective male counterparts, filling them with pangs of conscience and reminding them of chances lost. Musically they also allow for mixed quartets; there is even a compelling scene in which the two apparitions open up to each other, a tender duet of remorse. Srnka has set to music everything from Morse code to the calling of seagulls and the neighing of ponies to the barking of pack hounds. 

Both leads are characterized wonderfully. The minute preparations of Amundsen, which allowed him to beat Scott, are contrasted with the naïve nature of the latter’s planning, which eventually costs him both victory and his life. The uncompromising nature of both commanders is set tellingly. There is a touching scene in which, in parallel, both teams have to shoot their animals. However, Amundsen has to eliminate only a number of his dogs in order to provide food for the return. Scott, who has bought old and useless ponies, must kill them all. 

If the work has a major problem, it is that Scott and Amundsen were both eminently disagreeable people. It is hard to have any sympathy for men who were so self-centered that they would risk the lives of others for their own aggrandizement. The first half of the divided opera seemed long; the second symmetrical half, of equal length, after the intermission, spoke more directly and approached true music drama as tragedy eliminated the members of Scott’s team while the victorious members of Amundsen’s team celebrated. 

Vocally, there was little to complain about. As Amundsen, Thomas Hampson was a towering presence in every sense. His voice, in stunning form, carried well, and his sense of the dramatic made him a perfect exponent of the Norwegian explorer. Rolando Villazón, as Scott, pressed his tenor voice a bit, singing too often at full throttle, but his tone was luxurious and his sensitivity sublime. Tara Erraught sang a lush-toned Kathleen Scott, and soprano Mojca Erdmann used her pristine timbre to paint an unforgettable portrait of Amundsen’s Landlady. Composer, librettist and stage director gave each member of the two expeditionary teams a distinct personality: it was a pleasure to hear the men dig into both solo and ensemble work. Especially convincing were tenors Dean Power as Lawrence Oates, Kevin Conners as Edward Adrian (“Uncle Bill”) Wilson, from Scott’s team, and particularly baritone Tim Kuypers as Hjalmar Johansen, the only man in the team who was not afraid to disagree with Amundsen, and who was vengefully eliminated from Amundsen’s journals.  

The diction was, for the most part, unintelligible. Even native English-speakers in the audience, myself included, were forced to rely on the German supertitles in order to follow along. Conductor Kirill Petrenko conducted the difficult score with apparent ease and enthusiasm. There was much jubilation from the audience at the end of the show, as a visibly moved Srnka was led onto the stage to join the cast members.

Whether any new opera will survive in the repertory is always an open question, but in the case of South Pole,the sheer size of the orchestral forces required may dissuade all but the largest houses from exploring its viability.  —Jeffrey A. Leipsic 

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