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Deutsche Oper Berlin

In Review Berlin Invisible hdl 118
The world premiere of Reimann’s Invisible at Deutsche Oper Berlin
© Bernd Uhlig

A WEEK AFTER the Staatsoper Unter den Linden opened its truncated homecoming season with a baffling staging of Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust, Deutsche Oper mounted the world premiere of Aribert Reimann’s L’Invisible (seen Oct. 8), the first of seven new productions at the house this season. While the Staatsoper is busy rebranding itself as the premier opera house in Germany (a reputation currently enjoyed—and unlikely to be relinquished any time soon—by the Bayerische Staatsoper), Deutsche Oper focused its energies on this latest work from Germany’s most important living opera composer. 

Reimann, an eighty-one-year-old Berlin native, and Deutsche Oper Berlin go way back. In 1955, when Reimann was a nineteen-year-old conservatory graduate, he landed his first job as a répétiteur with the company, then called the Städtische Oper. Since then, five of his nine operas have had their premieres at the house, from Melusine (1971) to 1992’s version of Kafka’s Schloss, his most recent work for DOB prior to L’Invisible.

A clammy ninety-minute-long exploration of psychological terror, L’Invisible is based on three short, mysterious texts by the Belgian Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck, adapted by the composer—in French—to form a “trilogie lyrique.” In L’Intruse, a family waits for word of a mother whose life hangs in the balance after a difficult childbirth; in L’Intérieur, a stranger finds a dead body in the river and hesitates to inform the victim’s family; in La Mort de Tintagiles, a fearsome queen summons her young grandson to her castle and snatches him away from his grief-ridden sister.

For a work comprising disparate texts, the opera has remarkable dramatic momentum, especially in the climactic episode. The rumbling, growling strings that open L’Intruse,wispy and tremulous, support a fluid, melismatic vocal line. The gradually thickening orchestration bubbles up with anxiety, and while the orchestra buttresses the agile vocal writing, it is also highly illustrative. Reimann lets us hear, for instance, the footsteps of the unknown intruder sensed only by the blind grandfather.

In its jagged lyricism, L’Invisible brings to mind the Second Viennese School, although one also senses the philosophical, if not compositional, influence of Debussy (whose Pelléas et Mélisande is the best-known Maeterlinck adaptation) in the music’s striving to grasp a mystery and to name the unnamable.   

It is far more restrained—one might even say repressed—than Reimann’s previous opera, Medea. One clear touchstone is his 1978 masterpiece Lear, whose majestically woeful final scene is emulated at the end of La Mort de Tintagiles with a wrenching arioso sung by Ygraine, the victim’s sister. As with Shakespeare’s howling king, Reimann supports Ygraine’s cries of grief with unison strings, at once soothing and impersonal. Their vibrato-free caress was sympathetic yet unsentimental.

As the panicked princess, Rachel Harnisch won thunderous applause for her dazzling and dramatic coloratura. Surrounding her onstage were a number of fine DOB ensemble members, few of whom had much opportunity to shine in their small, multiple roles. Stephen Bronk wielded his weathered yet imposing baritone as the Blind Grandfather; Thomas Blondelle put his nervous tenor to effective use as the Uncle and the Stranger. And Salvador Macedo, a member of the DOB children’s chorus, was excellent in the spoken role of Tintagiles. 

General music director Donald Runnicles helmed a tightly focused and precise performance that highlighted both the score’s conceptually abstract and solidly narrative aspects. It was enigmatic without sounding murky and had its share of pulse-quickening moments.

Even though it is scored for a large orchestra, L’Invisible feels very much like a chamber work. Vasily Barkhatov’s severe production managed to create intimacy—and suffocating dread—in the massive confines of the Deutsche Oper, Germany’s second-largest opera house, by having a shallow set and keeping most of the action downstage. Riskier was the Russian director’s decision to give the entirely unknown piece a classic Regie treatment, superimposing a commentary on the plot. Yet he managed to pull it off with a spookily austere production set in a modern manor house and hospital—meant to evoke the 1970s, I would say, judging by a prominent Star Wars action figure. A cradle rocking on its own, elaborate tableaux vivants of dead children and shadows that crept (a bit too frequently) across the high walls of the set were among the sinister goings-on. The one baffling touch were the garbage-bag dresses, designed by Olga Shaishmelashvili, that were worn by the queen’s three servants (all countertenors!), whose horned helmets, coupled with their high-pitched voices, brought to mind Monty Python’s Knights Who Say Ni.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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