On October 27, 2012, the German composer Jörg Widmann he unveiled his ambitious opera Babylon at the State Opera of Bavaria. Fate wanted that same day to die who had been one of his teachers, in addition to one of the greatest opera players of the twentieth century: Hans Werner Henze. The author of Elegy for young lovers He died by chance during a trip to Dresden, in his own native country, but very far from his spiritual home, Italy, where he lived for the last sixty years of his life. Henze and Widmann also shared an editorial, the historical Schott, which had also been the last Beethoven, Wagner or Hindemith, another operatic who, although here we live with their backs to their achievements, wrote several outstanding chapters of the modern reinvention of the genre.
On March 9, 2019, Widmann has unveiled at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin a version of Babylon radically rejuvenated with respect to the release in his hometown. And, very few hours before, destiny played dice again: the conductor Michael Gielen, a staunch apostle of the music of his time, he died at his home next to the Austrian Mondsee. He lived long enough to attest to the extraordinary talent of Widmann, of whom he directed several of his works in his later years. To crown the caroms of this three-pool billiard game, it should be remembered that the director was born in 1927 in Dresden.
Babylon. Music by Jörg Widmann. Libretto by Peter Sloterdijk. Susanne Elmark, Mojca Erdmann, Charles Workman, Marina Prudénskaia and John Tomlinson, among others. Choir and Orchestra of the Staatsoper Unter de Linden in Berlin. Stage director: Andreas Kriegenburg. Musical Director: Christopher Ward. March 9
Michael Gielen had been – he still was nominally, despite the fact that health no longer allowed him to direct since 2014 – Principal Guest Conductor of the Staatskapelle Berlin, the resident orchestra of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, which had also appointed him an honorary member , its highest distinction. Nobody could be surprised, therefore, that before the curtain was raised, its mayor, Matthias Schulz, went on stage microphone in hand to briefly recall the teacher's career, explicitly mentioning the historical production of Pelléas et Mélisande of Ruth Berghaus that he directed musically in 1991 or what was then the premiere, in the opera house of the former East Berlin, of nothing less than Lulu by Alban Berg (in the production of Peter Mussbach). Schulz asked for a minute of silence in his memory, that the public that filled the room kept respectfully standing up, so this new Babylon, one of whose characters is, precisely, La Muerte, could not have a more exciting or more pertinent beginning, since at the beginning of the score it reads: "The curtain goes up. Silence".
If the libretto of an opera is ordered to the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, a conventional text can not be expected from him: neither a comedy of entanglement nor a drama of opposing passions. His proposal is openly ideological, conceptual and, therefore, susceptible to multiple readings and space-time transfers. Centered on the ancient city of Babylon, Sloterdijk flees from more hackneyed or foreseeable approaches, such as the famous Tower of Babel and its confusion of tongues, or that other Babylon that the Book of the Apocalypse qualifies as "the mother of harlots and the abominations of the earth", inspiration for the title of The whore of Babylon, the ferocious anti-Catholic diatribe of Fernando Vallejo. Sloterdijk, which places the beginning of the opera "among the ruins of a city destroyed in the ancient East", chooses it as a symbol of a place where two peoples coexist in an unequal condition, oppressor and oppressed, with almost antagonistic religions, seasoned with a peculiar and dissimilar love triangle between El Alma (an allegorical character distantly related to that of the Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo, of Antonio de 'Cavalieri), Inanna (Babylon) and Tammu (Jew). The concepts of belonging and identity, dream and illusion and the tear that involves the choice between two opposing and excluding options also plan strongly in many moments of the libretto.
In the brief prologue, Babylon is a city already ravaged, and the man-scorpion (a figure taken from the Epic of Gilgameš) who plays him alone uses two biblical quotes (Joshua and Isaiah) to throw two curses that prevent future reconstruction: "Cursed of God who rebuild this city! The life of the firstborn will cost the foundations and the life of the youngest child the doors "and will never be repopulated because" their abandoned houses will be filled with owls, there will dwell ostriches and goats will jump there; hyenas will howl in their mansions and jackals in their palaces of pleasure. "
Those who knew the original version of Munich immediately realized that the radical changes of this new Berlin score start in the prologue itself. Then these texts were merely recited by the scorpion-man, whereas now they are sung, first a cappella and then with the pure sound of air, the glissandi and, finally, when he returns to throw the curse, the chords that play on stage seven intrumentists of shofar, the Jewish ceremonial wind instrument, like a horn. Then, the libretto goes back to the Babylon before the destruction, but the staging of Andreas Kriegenburg prefers to remain in what he himself calls a "post-apocalyptic society", which the scenery represents as the guts of a half-built building , inspired by the Tower of David in Caracas, which, despite not ending due to economic problems, and lacking elevators, railings that protect it from the void or windows, its skeleton was also inhabited by homeless people. In the cubicles of this dystopian hive, in some of its walls can be seen reproductions of a detail of the reconstructed Ishtar Gate of Babylon that can be seen here in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin or the painting On May 3, 1808 in Madrid of Goya, the Jews are crowded with dark or gray clothes, or the Babylonians are given to lust and pleasure with a bright and colorful wardrobe.
The proposal of Kriegenburg, in what it supposes his debut in the Staatsoper, has the virtue of which explains the text of Sloterdijk, it covers it of the theatrical fairness, at the time that accommodates meekly to the music of Widmann, surpassing with much the proposal rather empty and banal that Carlus Padrissa imagined in his day for the premiere of the original version of Munich, saturated with videos, with a disproportionate wardrobe, great visual color and the usual technological deployment, but very little psychological substance. Kriegenburg chooses, on the other hand, a unique setting, that ramshackle wall that rises and falls to reveal its various rooms that confers intimacy and closeness to the action, as well as delving into the minds and feelings of the protagonists. Two brief and innocuous videos at the beginning of each of the parties, which show the destruction and bombing of cities or religious fanaticism, do not bother and are in keeping with a production very little interventionist and decidedly collaborationist. The differences between both productions is, mutatis mutandis, very similar to those that distinguished the proposals one from the other Die Soldaten, the great opera by Bernd Alois Zimmermann whose historic premiere was directed by Michael Gielen in 1965: the superficial, spherical and confused of Carlus Padrissa for Colonia versus the shocking, intense and agonizing of Andreas Kriegenburg for Munich.
The revised version is lavish in suppressions (more than half an hour of music and text have disappeared), but there are also numerous passages of a new style or radically recomposed, with use even of instruments that did not appear even in the orchestral template of the first edition, like the crystal harmonica (maybe influence of Written on Skin by George Benjamin, where he plays a fundamental role?), a spectral timbre presence that Kriegenburg places in the proscenium box and that is essential, among other passages, in the song of Innana of the sixth scene or in the lament of the Euphrates of the second (another absolute novelty of the Berlin version). Everything came together to make this last passage, preceded by a no less shocking scene in which the Euphrates sings along with the Babylonian choir, one of the musically most extraordinary moments of the opera. Performed by the formidable Russian mezzo-soprano Marina Prudénskaia, dressed in a wonderful dress designed by Tanja Hofmann that made her look like a female trunk emerged from its own waters, remains installed in the memory-visual and auditory-many hours after the conclusion of the performance. And Sloterdijk must also be credited with part of his merit, for he is the one who wrote the text of the lament: "I, the Euphrates, had ceased to be myself: it was a stormy sea, and I bore on my swollen back the drowned flesh of all kinds that Marduk had once created. "
It is impossible to account here for the immense textual and musical richness of this work, so generous in layers of meaning and entirely dominated by the number 7 (the Babylonians were the creators of our seven-day week). Therefore the opera is divided into seven scenes, hence we hear also septets of planets, phalluses, vulvas or rainbows and that is why Widmann constantly uses the number seven score to articulate his harmonic constructions and proceed with the periodization of your sentences. The German composer also does not renounce the use of traditional musical forms (as, for example, following the wake of Wozzeck from Berg or the Peter Grimes from Britten, the passacaglia that accompanies the descent of Inanna to the underworld to beg La Muerte to return Tammu to the realm of the living) or the purely tonal passages (that Bavarian military march deformed with a modus operandi that inevitably reminds Charles Ives). The vocal parts are characterized, however, by an inclement tessitura: abrupt jumps of an eighth and a half, ascents to the upper Do for children, and even above that limit for the two protagonists sopranos. This same demand is extendable to the choir – a constant presence, in its double Babylonian and Jewish incarnation – and to the orchestra, in whose opulence and sound potential Widmann is recreated in not a few moments.
For the end, another of the composite passages ex novo for this version, reserve, however, a moment of maximum simplicity. The opera does not close, as in Munich, with the scorpion-man we saw at the beginning, but with two children who sing on the top of one of the cells of the hive one of those children's raffles ("pinto, pinto, gorgorito "), a powerful symbol of a new time without wars, or offerings, or cruel gods or absurd religious disputes, in which, in another novelty of this version, Widmann uses live electronics to create a prodigious effect, which Kriegenburg decides to reinforce its final section with a powerful white light that illuminates the entire room. The presence of these two children is also, perhaps, a new nod at the end of Wozzeck, in which Marie's son swings merrily on his wooden horse, oblivious to the murder of his mother and the suicide of his father.
The vocal casting was entirely marked, except for the deficient priest of Florian Hoffmann, at a great height. Susanne Elmark, the Marie we could admire in the premiere of Die Soldaten in Madrid, composed a sensual, vitalist, emotive and credible Inanna as tempting and as a savior (in an inversion of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice) of Tammu. Charles Workman embodied this exiled Jew who acts as an authentic mediator between two different cultures and ends up being the sacrificial victim of the Babylonians. He spent some trouble in the highs, but it is difficult to think of any tenor who can dodge them. Mojca Erdmann, dressed in a radiant white dress, like a virgin, showed her well-known affinity for contemporary music in general and the language of Widmann in particular, and she knew how to give the Soul character a just corporeity, climbing with confidence and aplomb to her own and generous ration of stratospheric notes: until an overactive Mi preceded by a brief glissando from the Do in his exciting final monologue. John Tomlinson is one of those singers who fills the scene when they sing: it was for years the Wotan of reference in the Ring Wagnerian from Barenboim and in London he still remembers his overwhelming Tiresias in the British premiere of Oedipe of Enesco. At 72, the English bass still keeps his voice in excellent condition and composes a priest-king as credible as he is fearsome. To Andrew Watts, who demonstrated his enormous histrionic abilities in his Baba the Turkish in the recent Rake's progress of Aix-en-Provence, the character of the man-scorpion is a bit short. He is a great specialist in the contemporary repertoire, with plenty of musical and acting resources. Here his role is brief and episodic, but when he can exhibit his talents, as in the rampant party of the third scene and in his final philosophical apparition, one must discover himself before his faculties.
There has already been evidence of the masterful intervention of Marina Prudénskaia as the Euphrates, a small role that eventually gave her the biggest applause and ovations of the premiere, including those of Peter Sloterdijk himself, very close to which Aribert Reimann was sitting, that something He also knows what composing a contemporary opera is. The Berlin cast, entirely different from that of Munich, is completed by Otto Katzameier, in the very grateful and parodic role of La Muerte; the spoken character of the prophet Ezekiel, entrusted to the magnificent actor Felix von Manteuffel; the resounding and very well sung scribe of David Oštrek; the two vocal septets and the three children (one of them, the messenger who announces in the fourth scene that Tammu must be offered to the gods). The demands placed on the orchestra's instrumentalists are no less extraordinary and the Staatsoper, reinforced by several members of its Academy, with several Spaniards in its ranks (the violinists Carla Marrero and Pablo Aznárez Maeztu, the trumpeter Carlos Navarro, the percussionist Moisés Santos Good), it comes out more than graceful of the endeavor, commanded by a solvent, although not great, Christopher Ward, who already participated in the preparation of the Munich premiere and was, therefore, familiar with a good part of the score. He agreed in general with security, although he lacked forcefulness in the exuberant sonorous passages and was hesitant in the difficult end of the fourth scene. Anyone who wants to learn about writing for percussion in a large orchestral piece, will do well to consult the Widmann score, with an infinite kaleidoscope of interventions of almost fifty different instruments, which also gives a prominent role at various moments to the accordion, whose interpretation it has been entrusted here, often luxury, to the great Theodore Anzellotti.
No mention has been made so far of the great absentee, Daniel Barenboim, who was the one who commissioned Widmann this revised version and who was the one who was called to direct this premiere. An unexpected ophthalmological operation, prior to the dozens of articles that have aroused in recent weeks in the German press his complex personality and the many autocratic way of managing his own orchestra and dealing with his musicians, have prevented him from doing so. But he did want to be present at the premiere, in a proscenium box, much more aware of what happened in the pit than the action that took place on the stage. It is not difficult to imagine how much he could have improved if he had been able to interpret under his baton. In fact, shortly before his operation, he was able to direct, in the Staatsoper itself and in the Philharmonie, the purely orchestral suite of opera that Widmann premiered at Grafenegg in 2014, and it can be thought that some of his teachings during the rehearsals of those concerts will have impregnated and will continue to be perpetuated in the coming days in these operatic performances.
What nobody can doubt is that Babylon it is an opera, because it follows, one after the other, the rules that have been shaping the genre during its more than four centuries of history, and with many winks or tributes to its predecessors. With this radical revision, Widmann has accentuated his virtues and corrected his excesses. Also the intelligent staging of Andreas Kriegenburg seems called to endure and to travel, hopefully, to numerous theaters. After the applause lavished with all justice to singers, choir, orchestra and musical and stage directors, who rose as the great winner of the night was, as it could not be otherwise, Jörg Widmann, a talented and lacking composer of complex, coveted by all (his oratory ARCHE It was a commission for the opening of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie, was a resident artist of the National Center for Musical Diffusion two years ago and will be the next season of the Palau de la Música in Barcelona) and that, in addition to composing, is a clarinetist and orchestra director demanded in the five continents. Teach, also, in the Barenboim-Said Academy that has its headquarters in the Pierre Boulez Saal, where the Israeli director has entrusted the chair that bears the name of Edward Said, there is nothing. This new Babylon, which corners forever the old way, is, scene after scene, an opera seven times great. Although some enthusiasts, and among the Berlin public that applauded her very long and enthusiastically at the end of the premiere seemed clearly majority, will think that it would be more fair to say, Babylonian, that seventy times seven.