(DVD review)

Revenge of the Futurists

Orchestra and chorus of the Zurich Opera House
Conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Stage Direction by Martin Kušej
2008 ~ German language with subtitles.

The staging is, shall we say, unconventional. Traditionally, an opera overture is heard as absolute music, but in this production, it is accompanied by a pantomime. As the overture begins, we see four characters in a brilliantly lit, antiseptically white room, reminiscent of an operating theater. The room and the costumes are done in a 19th Century style, despite the fact the opera is set in the 8th Century. As the music plays, the characters all silently exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia: fearfully attempting to stamp out invisible insects on the floor, laughing uncontrollably for no apparent reason. One character fondles a knife. Then, out of nowhere, another character produces a dead fish, and several of them pass it back and forth in a panic-stricken manner. At other times, the four stare off into space, gripped by existential misery, as Schumann's lovely music continues incongruously in the background.

Schumann viewed himself as a keeper of the flame for the tradition of Bach and Beethoven, which was under attack from the "futurists" such as Liszt. One of the tactics employed by the "futurists" was the deliberate misperformance of the masterworks of earlier times. Now, 200 years later, we see the same tactics being used against Schumann, to shameful effect.

When the singing begins, the audience feels a flicker of hope; the characters seem to behave in a more human fashion (although the chorus stands in complete darkness.) However, the situation soon deteriorates. Golo, servant of Siegfried, sings an aria, during which he stands on a chair, as his fellow inmates examine him curiously. Another servant, Margaretha, her face smeared with a brown substance that one hopes is merely mud, captures him in an ominous embrace him from behind. Soon thereafter, Siegfried and Genoveva execute a bizarre robotic dance while singing a duet. Genoveva seems to lose control of her motor functions, tilting inexplicably to the right from time to time. Mimicking Golo, Siegfried also stands on the chair.

It was around this time that we turned off the DVD.

The main perpetrator here appears to be stage director Martin Kušej. The music is conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt; we have heard his recording of the opera, and found it to be pleasant. Perhaps one might enjoy this DVD with the picture turned off.

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