Thursday, 19 November 2015

ROH: Morgen und Abend - A Philosopher's Ghost Opera ★★★★



Georg Friedrich Haas's new opera Morgen und Abend is one of those operas that will stick in your memory for a long time. It's a creative co-production with the Royal Opera House and Deutsche Oper Berlin, directed by Graham Vick, yet despite the lack of song in the first 35 minutes, there's something interesting and intellectually absorbing about it.

The offstage echoing vocals, the microtonal and complex score is a large part of what makes up the alluring soundscape. It suspends itself on human emotion and a deep inspection of life and death. Its short duration of 1 hour 30 minutes (without a pause) exemplifies how simple and compact it is.


The opera, based on Norwegian writer Jon Fosse's Morgon og Lveld (2000), centres on the life of fisherman Johannes. Without giving the story away, Johannes discovers a truth about himself and his reality with every interaction he has with his wife, daughter and fisherman friend Peter. Death is called into question and Johannes is left grappling with his confused answers as an old man, as a father and a husband.
The opera begins at the outset of his life, when his father Olai first gives Johannes his name. Klaus Maria Brandauer is a famous Austrian actor who takes on this complicated paternal role. Although mostly spoken in English, his performance is authentic as an elderly and reflective man. He howls and screams, concerned over the meaning of his existence. It's a long section that could have worked better if it were cut short to 15 minutes. Nonetheless, the build up sets the tone for the rest of the opera, where the mysticism unravels.


On either side of the orchestra, in the stalls circle, there are two percussionists who strike the drums hard. These vibrations relentlessly bewilder the auditorium. Michael Boder conducts the ROH orchestra and given the sublime variations, temperaments, repetitions and chilling twists, they deserve much credit for performing so well. Some hear hints of Peter Grimes in the music. To me I hear echoes of Philip Glass.

The set is is minimal. Richard Hudson's revolving set is like a surreal, icy dream world. It's completely white and laid out like a paper scroll. On this page there's a white door, a white fisherman's boat, a white bed and a couple of white chairs. The English translation of the German libretto is projected behind the performers like a filtered instagram image. The stage moves steadily and slowly and a large spot light travels, at a snail pace, above the singers like the movement of the sun - from morning to night. Objects move without the blind eye noticing.
Christoph Pohl performs as the despairing Johannes, which is fascinating to watch. Alongside him is the strong soaring voice of Helena Rasker as Johannes's loving wife. She's constantly there but not as Johannes thinks. Sarah Wegener has a lucid vocal talent that rises above and beyond as both daughter and midwife. Taking on these two roles is a tough challenge but she sweeps many off their feet with her tantalising voice. Will Hartmann as pale faced Peter also adds a nostalgic effect to the opera with heartfelt singing and constant reminders, by Johannes, to have a overdue haircut. 

The German libretto may seem repetitive, yet its narrative is simple. It deals with critical ideas of existentialism. A lot of the time the audience's feelings about life and death influence how much the opera impacts them. It seems that Haas has no expectations of how the audience is meant to react other than draw upon their own personal associations and past experiences dealing with family loss and loneliness.

This opera isn't for everyone. Yet, those who appreciate less action for more contemplation and intense atmospheric music will. 


(Photographs courtesy of the Royal Opera House) Click here to purchase tickets. Only three showings left - last showing 28th November 2015.