The world premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’ new opera Morgen und Abend, a co-production between the Royal Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin, has to rank as one of the most offbeat operatic experiences of 2015: very few operas, excepting some important offstage sounds, include not a note of singing for the first 35 minutes.
To highlight its unorthodox feel, however, is in no way to slur the piece for it is its innovative and intensive nature (it lasts around 90 minutes without pause) which makes it such a substantial work. The story, which is based on Norwegian writer Jon Fosse’s Morgon og Kveld of 2000, centres on a fisherman named Johannes. On the last day of his life he reflects on the meaning of everything with family and friends, some of whom have already died, before realising that he is himself dead. If, however, the opera is a meditation on mortality, the search for the meaning of life is presented entirely from the perspective of one who is about to enter or exit it, for the only other day that we encounter is that of Johannes’ birth.
What we might deem to be the Prologue (although it does not officially enjoy that status) sees Johannes’ father Olai (played by actor Klaus Maria Brandauer) reflecting on existence at the time of his son’s birth. Although he only ever speaks (and here the ‘melodrama’, unlike the rest of the opera, is delivered in English), his voice in terms of impact and variation possesses an operatic grandeur, and the scenario, to an extent, sets the tone for the evening.
This Prologue might, for the purposes of explanation, be divided into four elements that all contribute to the whole. There is the dialogue delivered by Brandauer as well as the offstage choral chanting that includes traces of Purcell’s ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord’. The third element is the percussion, which constitutes an entity in its own right being physically detached from the rest of the orchestra. Two percussionists, surrounded by a plethora of instruments, are situated in the stalls circle to either side of the stage, and they begin the evening by pounding relentlessly on drums.
The fourth element is the rest of the orchestra, conducted by Michael Boder. The sinuous music frequently sees different sections (the strings, wind and brass) take the initiative and, although it is not minimalist, some of the key features of minimalism are apparent. There is some emphasis upon variation within repetition, and this does have the effect of drawing the audience in to the extent of almost hypnotising them.
In Graham Vick’s production, Richard Hudson’s set consists of one huge sheet of white ‘paper’ that lies across the stage and curls up to create a backdrop. Upon this ‘page’ appears the translation of the German libretto (more conventional surtitles also feature) alluding to the idea of Johannes writing the story of his life. Everything upon the stage is also white, so that even the fishermen’s boots become that colour. As we see a boat lie on the land, a bed sit in the open air and a door stand with no walls on either side, the whole area feels surreal, suggesting that dreams stand in a place between life and death
There are no standout arias or opportunities for the singers to be vocally flashy, but the score is engaging and each soloist makes their presence felt with the richness and consistency of their sounds. Christoph Pohl as Johannes excels in particular, but Helena Rasker as his wife, Sarah Wegener as his daughter (and a midwife) and Will Hartmann as his friend all play their parts to the full.
I was struck by the sheer extent to which Morgen und Abend employs ‘objective storytelling’, a device that goes back in opera all the way to Monteverdi. In other words, Jon Fosse’s libretto is incredibly simple with lines being no more complex than ‘When we get home I’ll put some coffee on’ and ‘We always cut each other’s hair’. Our emotional response derives from the subtexts we elicit, which can in turn derive from the personal associations we make upon hearing the words. The music also contributes to our feelings, but in another sense it is a part of the objective storytelling in its own right. For example, when Johannes finally discovers he is dead and is invited to go on his final boat journey there is no obvious climax in the music to complement the revelation. The cumulative effect of words, music and our own thoughts, however, is extremely powerful and, although it is possible that some people may be left feeling cold by this opera, we were thoroughly engaged and moved to a remarkable degree.
The Royal Opera’s Morgen und Abend will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 5 December from 6.30pm.