Morgen und Abend, which is a co-commission between the Royal Opera House and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, is a drama set largely in the minds of a father and son which explores all the important life events with their concomitant emotions.

It isn’t the first time I’ve attended a world premiere where a star performer has been added to the cast, presumably in the hope of broadening the audience base, widening the appeal of a genre which is all-too-often accused of being esoteric. This time the services of esteemed Austrian actor, Klaus Maria Brandauer were enlisted. The upshot was it was nearly a full house for a new work by an Austrian-born composer whose music is little known in the UK.

Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas; Libretto by Jon Fosse; World Premiere; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden' London UK; 10 November 2015; Klaus Maria Brandauer as Olai; Conductor - Michael Boder; Director - Graham Vick; Designer - Richard Hudson; Lighting designer - Giuseppe Di Iorio; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Olai;
Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

In my former career I was a frequent visitor to Vienna and so I did have an idea of the kind of music Georg Friedrich Haas writes for orchestra and for chamber ensemble. And yet, despite the fact that this is his seventh opera, I had never previously heard one of his theatrical compositions. In fact I met the composer briefly almost twenty years ago and when he took his curtain call, I was genuinely surprised to discover that his appearance had not changed over the decades. Even this felt apposite: an ageless composer writing about birth, death and the life of three generations over a mere span of 90 minutes. Human life is over in the blink of an eye and yet we leave behind traces.

Graham Vick with his team of designer Richard Hudson and lighting designer Giuseppe di Iorio have created a monochrome world of icy grey, illustrating the other-worldly existence of the old fisherman Olai, his son Johannes and his daughter, Signe. On reading Damion Searls’ translation of the libretto by Norwegian writer, Jon Fosse (which was helpfully sent out in advance of the performance by the ROH press department) it is clear we are not witnessing a narrative played out in real time – except at the end when Signe experiences her father as a ghost – but a piece of poetry which explores the meaning of birth and death. Mr di Iorio’s use of white light was magical and the projections of the surtitles onto the backdrop (by 59 Productions) are suitably wraith-like for this ethereal world twixt life and death.

Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas; Libretto by Jon Fosse; World Premiere; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden' London UK; 6 November 2015; Klaus Maria Brandauer as Olai; Sarah Wegener as Signe / Midwife; Conductor - Michael Boder; Director - Graham Vick; Designer - Richard Hudson; Lighting designer - Giuseppe Di Iorio; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Olai;
Sarah Wegener as Signe / Midwife;
Designer – Richard Hudson;
Lighting designer – Giuseppe Di Iorio;
Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

The first forty minutes of the opera are a meditation given voice by Herr Brandauer whose character feels cold, disorientated and strangely insensate (because he’s dead, d’you see?) This venerable actor emotes magnificently over dueling bass drum and timps then slowly shifting and highly-discomfiting tritone chords played by a huge orchestra with the addition of an offstage wordless chorus. Only at one point were his words swallowed up by dark undulating waters of a maelstrom. Fosse delivers an amazingly powerful description of what it might feel like to be born, with the emphasis on being drawn towards the light, very much in the manner of accounts of near-death experiences, cleverly linking the beginning and end of life. Maybe it was this juxtaposition of a declamation about something so primeval against a backdrop of shifting surfaces and dark depths which I found so oppressive. I would also question the decision for the spoken word to be declaimed in English, just because we were an English audience. It felt strained and peculiar when finally a second character appeared and sang to him – in German – to which he replied in English.

I am quite saddened that it wasn’t until Olai (the father) left the stage that the opera really burst into life. I suppose the depiction of the old man in what appears to be a frozen landscape in the far north of Norway artfully portrays the loneliness of the human condition as well as the tendency of the ageing to reminisce. The bleakness and other-worldliness are highly atmospheric, but forty minutes is a long time to remain in this almost painful suspended animation. I smiled as others in the audience tittered at the line, “If only something would happen.” It did, but not quite soon enough.

Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas; Libretto by Jon Fosse; World Premiere; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden' London UK; 6 November 2015; Christoph Pohl as Johannes;Helena Rasker as Erna; Conductor - Michael Boder; Director - Graham Vick; Designer - Richard Hudson; Lighting designer - Giuseppe Di Iorio; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

Christoph Pohl as Johannes;Helena Rasker as Erna;
Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

At the heart of the opera is the sung role of Johannes. Like his father before him, all is not right with Johannes. He doesn’t understand why it is so cold, why he can still see his late wife, why time no longer has meaning, why his daughter can no longer see him. Signe, the daughter, doesn’t live in glorious technicolour and the door through which she passes and chairs she moves are part of Graham Vick’s symbolic landscape, not real objects. To me that means we are witnessing snapshots of a past life, seen through the mind’s eye, not necessarily all in the right order, but in a rotating pattern of little gestures which meant so much to Johannes during his lifetime.

At the heart of the opera is the sung role of Johannes. Like his father before him, all is not right with Johannes. He doesn’t understand why it is so cold, why he can still see his late wife, why time no longer has meaning, why his daughter can no longer see him. Signe, the daughter, doesn’t live in glorious technicolour and the door through which she passes and chairs she moves are part of Graham Vick’s symbolic landscape, not real objects. To me that means we are witnessing snapshots of a past life, seen through the mind’s eye, not necessarily all in the right order, but in a rotating pattern of little gestures which meant so much to Johannes during his lifetime.

Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas; Libretto by Jon Fosse; World Premiere; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden' London UK; 6 November 2015; left to right: Sarah Wegener as Signe / Midwife; Helena Rasker as Erna; Christoph Pohl as Johannes; Conductor - Michael Boder; Director - Graham Vick; Designer - Richard Hudson; Lighting designer - Giuseppe Di Iorio; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

left to right:
Sarah Wegener as Signe / Midwife;
Helena Rasker as Erna;
Christoph Pohl as Johannes;
Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

German baritone, Christoph Pohl making his ROH debut as Johannes, sang his heart out, utterly convincing as a simple man who loved his wife, valued his fellow fishermen and appreciated his daughter’s care and concern, all the while having no idea he was already dead. The soprano Sarah Wegener as his daughter would sparkle in the music of Luigi Nono with her perfect, crystalline upper register. The Dutch contralto Helena Rasker has a wonderful warm deep voice and a stage presence to match. She was convincingly sympathetic towards her widower in his discomfiture, despite fading in and out of focus from where he stands. I haven’t heard the German tenor, Will Hartmann (Peter the fisherman) sing since he was the eponymous hero of Birtwistle’s Gawain back in the year 2000, notable for stripping on stage and having a bucket of blood thrown over him (as you do.) There were no comparable indignities here except he sports long grey hair which appears to have continued growing post-mortem. His voice today has a brittleness to it which reminded me of Heinz Zednik playing Loge in the glory days of Bayreuth.

Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas; Libretto by Jon Fosse; World Premiere; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden' London UK; 7 November 2015; Christoph Pohl as Johannes;Will Hartmann as Peter (rt); Conductor - Michael Boder; Director - Graham Vick; Designer - Richard Hudson; Lighting designer - Giuseppe Di Iorio; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

Christoph Pohl as Johannes;Will Hartmann as Peter (rt);
Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA

The German conductor, Michael Boder, known for his conducting of premieres by Henze, Reimann, Dusapin and Cerha, was totally in control of the huge orchestral forces at his disposal. As well as the percussion spread out in the boxes on either side of the pit, as in The Minotaur, Herr Boder had in front of him three piccolos, a contrabassoon, a bass clarinet doubling Eb, an accordion and a full brass section in addition to a large body of strings. The music created was constantly shifting from huge luminous chords, to chinking ice crystals at the top end of the register, to a tone row passing from instrument to instrument as single notes, to phased chords a beat apart. Underpinning everything is the sense of an ice-cold Norwegian sea, undulating in the darkness. A combination of the excellent characterful singing, the endless variety of Haas’ soundworld and the soaring beauty of the vocal lines made the remaining fifty minutes of the opera a real gem, so engaging I stumbled out into the streets with my head still floating in a sea of ice.

4 stars

Miranda Jackson

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