Wednesday, 27 April 2011

SONNTAG aus LICHT Teil 2, Oper Köln

[SONNTAG aus LICHT Teil 1, see here]

The second part of SONNTAG aus LICHT began in Auditorium B, where the raked seating faced the now unscreened expanse of the deep stage with its black pool of water. In this pool, the 4th scene, SCENTS – SIGNS – took place. Yet the scene spilled out beyond the parameters of the performance space, as a major factor of the scene is the burning of 7 different kinds of Incense, each scent assigned to a day of the week; as the incense is burned as part of the performance on stage, dark figures walk the stairs by the side of the seats with incense burners, to ensure the audience get a proper nose-full of each perfume. Although theatre is a sensual art form, it is unusual for the sense of smell to be engaged in a performance (an exception was Rufus Norris' production of Afore Night Come at the Young Vic in 2001, where the pungent smell of pears viscerally brought one into the pear-orchard setting). Of course, incense as an element of religious ritual has a long history and it is this tradition which SCENTS – SIGNS plays into. As the incense is burned, the singers (again done up as space-age medievalists)  and dancers conduct obscure rituals in the pool. Large metallic frames are lit and burn with flame; a circle of fire is built around Lucifer, making his only appearance in this LICHT opera (and surely giving a nod towards the circle of fire placed around Brünnhilde by Loge in Die Walküre) and providing some deeply compelling baritone singing as he is immured. I got the impression watching this scene that we were very much back in the world of a pre-Reformation Europe, where initiates performed obscure ceremonies for a captured audience who dimly realize that some rite is being performed but we're not sure what (perhaps some Stockhausen adepts in the audience – dressed resplendently for the occasion in white -  understood all the minutiae of the work more than I did). Yet despite not knowing quite what was happening, I was overwhelmed and seduced by the spectacle – glad to be a passive recipient of the ministrations of these priests and witch doctors of LICHT

Again, I felt like something was unfolding in the time the scene takes – on this occasion, the scene comes to a climax of extraordinary beauty. The boy Michael is summoned to the stage area and, after singing a beautiful duet with Eva, a (puppet) white horse glowing with light appears, cantering on the water towards them Michael is placed on the horse which flies off. This is a moment of monumental, heart-stopping gorgeousness in which the heavens open and we are in a world of magic and beauty (I couldn't help reflect how much more meaningful and heart-stopping this moment was compared to anything in the drab and dreary War Horse, which many English audiences have somehow taken for an evening of theatrical magic and emotional affect; how much more does SONNTAG aus LICHT bring the idea of peace into the audience's heart…). The music and ritual SCENTS – SIGNS had taken me, through the seven days of the week (each with its own sign and scent) from turbulence to union and ascension.

By now, the audience were accustomed to being summoned to each new scene by a short musical phrase and, on hearing this, we rose from our chairs and departed our standing points in the makeshift bar and lobby and walked, as one, towards the auditorium of the next scene. There was something reminiscent of the notes which summon the connected humans in Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the Mothership or, indeed, the bells or muezzins which call traditional devotees to services or prayers. It could be said that the event had trained and pacified us to have an almost Pavlovian reaction to this musical phrase, yet such was the beauty of SCENTS – SMELLS that I was in no mood to critique the situation from a rationalist or cynical standpoint; truly, Lucifer had been restrained.

The beauty of SCENTS – SMELLS had raised my expectations of the rest of the opera, yet little prepared me for the overwhelming affects of the 5th scene, HIGH TIMES. HIGH TIMES is, even for this opera, an unusual challenge to the producer. The music is arranged for both choir and orchestra. In Auditorium 1, the choir music is performed whilst simultaneously, in Auditorium 2, the orchestral version is played. On top of this, on 7 occasions, the two different performances blend with each other – here with the help of live visual/sound relay. The audience is divided into two (we were given gold cards instructing us) and one half goes into Auditorium 1 for the choir whilst the other half goes into Auditorium 2 for the orchestra. I was sent to Auditorium 1 for my encounter with what turned out to be one of the most awe-inspiring theatrical events I have ever witnessed.

In Auditorium 1, the HIGH TIMES choir is unseen. The audience walks into a promenade space (the deckchairs have gone) and sees a number of dance troupes around the room. The audience tentatively realizes that we are free to walk amongst these. The dance troupes each represent ecstatics from different cultures; there are Sufi dervishes, Hindu Brahmins, Buddhist monks, African shamen and, representing Europe I suppose, 4 club dancers – 2 go-go boys in gold Speedos and 2 women in lesbian chic suits (they will get into both hetero and homosexual couplings as the scene progresses). As the  divided choir sings in various languages – as an audience we come into the orbit of one or other as we walk around the space – the impossibly agile and beautiful dancers perform routines of mystery and wonder, generally mystical marriages/unions. As this goes on, the choirs and the dance troupes begin to mash up; the sections where the orchestra from Auditorium 1 is heard and appears on giant screens are most intense. This, the revelation seems to say, is the world we walk through when we see it right – a world where ecstatic mystics praise God in their many ways. 

As an adjunct to the dancing, individual dancers get into a plastic suit-cover which acts as a cross between a gimp-suit and a Matrix-pod, and breath through tubes until being released; a kind of odd enacted image of immersion in and rebirth from consumerism. The light horse then appears, with a Sufi mystic on its back; the sense of wonder and the insistent power of the music at this point were combining to give me rushes of joy. Whilst the horse flies around us, bucking and turning like a bronco, the troupes disappear then reappear on stilts. They gently – oh-so-kindly and patiently, sometimes with a light and loving touch – shepherd us into the centre of the space; we find ourselves corralled there, surrounded by the stilt-giant dancers and a wall of large round white shapes. The dancers put airplane-like wings on and, at the moment of climax, raise them. We are encircled by these beings, lights shine and we stand in the silence, the music having come to an end. The moment here, with us held in the circle, was an extraordinary hiatus. We didn't know what to do. We all knew, in our heart of hearts, that this was the end of the scene but no one dared move, as if we didn't want to break some spell. Then the dancers lowered their wings and, of course, we clapped. I came out of this scene buzzing with excitement.

Back in Auditorium 2, the orchestra play HIGH TIMES for the second time that evening (the dancers and choir, extraordinarily given the energy and precision demanded from the piece, are at it all again in Auditorium 1). As a number of small ensembles play in the pool, pairs of instrumentalists come out of their bands and play together, enacting as they do odd abstract scenes. Images are projected on a screen behind the orchestra and on a transparency across the front of the performance space (at the 7 times, we are shown what is happening in Auditorium 1). One odd anomaly is that we see a projection of an audience in the circle we found ourselves in at the end of the choir version – but these people take their clothes off, dance and pray (should we have done this, if we were truly in tune with God?). Slogans are projected, which are not in the libretto but which may be quotes from Stockhausen (although they were a bit generalist) – "Mankind must listen to its Visionaries", "Mankind must abandon political and religious parties" or "Mankind must live its life in the face of the Life After Death"; not messages to appeal to a rationalist or Mr. Worldly Wiseman. HIGH TIMES for Orchestra is somewhat less overwhelming an experience than the version for Choir but that kind of suited me; it bought me gently down from the adrenalin rush of the previous scene and sent me out of the event in a thoughtful and becalmed frame of mind.

We left the venue to the strains of a pre-recorded Stockhausen piece – SUNDAY FAREWELL – the miraculous, other-worldly sound of which is was hard to tear oneself away from (many of us lingered to hear more, that the spell not be broken). Finally leaving, I walked along the bank of the Rhine, the sound of SUNDAY FAREWELL growing distant. Across the river, the Cathedral glowed in its strikingly lit night time presence, truly the vision of the Kingdom of God which its medieval originators wished pilgrims to see, rising out of the earth and pointing towards another world.

Against all odds, SONNTAG aus LICHT was a constantly compelling and life-affirming experience. As a theatre event, it is memorable and unique. How rare it is to see a contemporary work of Art which affirms Light, Love and Union and how much against the prevailing trends of rationalist doubt Stockhausen was pushing his work and audience. It raised many questions in my mind – Do we need, regularly, a time spend imagining another, brighter world? Have we lost something now most of us have abandoned religious rituals? Do we need to turn off the inner and outer voices of cynicism and doubt, criticism and objection now and again in order to access something else? Do we spend far too much time mired, as William Blake would certainly suggest, in the rationalist world of Newton, Bacon and Locke (or, today, perhaps Hawking, Dawkins and Hitchens) and deny ourselves time spent bathing in the Light? Denying ourselves Sunday, our day of Rest…

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Interesting and insightful review. I wonder how much of the staging was the invention of Oper koln and the Spanish dance troupe, and how much was specified by the composer? I know that Stockhausen specified staging and many other things in quite a bit of detail. I get the feeling the Spanish dance troupe or perhaps others were imposing their own vision on this, as I suspect Stockhausen would not have approved many aspects of the staging.