A Dallapiccola-Rihm Double Bill in Brussels

Luigi Dallapiccola, a predominantly serialist composer who died in 1975, is no longer familiar to concert- and opera-going audiences but in the 1950s and 1960s his compositions were regularly performed, most notably his one act opera Il prigioniero, the subject matter of which had a resonance during the cold war period. A prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is induced by his gaoler to believe that he will be freed, only eventually to discover that the gaoler is the Grand Inquisitor in disguise; and he is released only to be condemned to death. Not the common stuff of tragedy, because it contains nothing heroic, nor is it a question of punishment being meted out as “just deserts”; and the sadistic duping by the “benevolent” gaoler makes it all the more harrowing. That the prisoner’s fate and aspirations are linked to notions of spiritual salvation indicates that implanted delusions are as much a feature of religious as of political systems. Indeed, to make life tolerable, there is a universal need for human beings to believe somehow in happy outcomes.

It was typically enterprising of Brussels’ La Monnaie, in collaboration with the Stuttgart Opera, to mount this powerful piece, the music of which also has great appeal. It may use variations on a twelve-tone row as a structural device, but the score has a lyrical quality which draws the listener into its sensuous, haunting commentary on the drama. Commending the conductor Franck Ollu for his precision and control in no way diminishes appreciation of the passion which he brought to the score.  The excellent cast was led by Georg Nigl as the Prisoner, torn between hope and despair, and sung with a burning intensity, Ángeles Blancas Gulin as his mother, feverishly trapped between dream and reality, and John Graham-Hall frighteningly cool as the gaoler.

Andrea Breth’s production was quite simply superb. A non-literal approach was taken; so, to realise the bleakness of the work, designer Martin Zehetgruber placed a simple cage structure at the centre of an empty stage, with the protagonists in black costumes (designer Nina von Mechow) pinpointed by spotlights. Continuity of action was broken up by the stage being plunged into darkness at frequent intervals, thus strengthening the visual impact through highlighting gesture and posture, for example the prisoner being dragged along by a seemingly endless rope. To invoke a Kafkaesque atmosphere, as the Prisoner’s hopes of freedom rise, other cages were added to the décor, with a dimly lit window frame at the end of a long corridor. At the denouement, the glare of high-powered strip lighting at the centre of the stage terrifyingly dazzled the audience; very different from the reassuring natural light of promised liberty.

Wolfgang Rihm’s  monodrama Das Gehege was a not inappropriately paired with Il prigioniero. Taken from the Botho Strauss play Schlusschor, it traces the relationship between a woman and a captive eagle. She cajoles, flirts with, caresses, mocks and finally frees the bird, but then kills it. The parallel with the behaviour of the Grand Inquisitor is clear, but we are left in doubt as to the woman’s motivation. Does she destroy what she desires out of self-contempt? Or else as act of liberation? The same questions as can be raised in relation to Salome’s behaviour in the Richard Strauss opera, for which it was written as a companion piece when first performed in 2006.

Sadly, the impact of Rihm’s work in no way matched that of the Dallapiccola. Once the main ideas of the libretto had been grasped, it became somewhat repetitious and tedious. The music with jagged orchestral phrases cutting across angular vocal lines too lacked sufficient variety. One could not but admire the performance of Ángeles Blancas Gulin who returned as the lone soloist, yet this was more for her virtuoso shifting from high to low registers and the physical accomplishments of climbing around the cage and singing while strung upside down than for her communication of the woman’s psychological predicament.

While the approach of the production team complemented what they had done in Il prigioniero, it failed to leave any lasting impression. I can understand that chronology of composition might have determined the order in which the two operas were performed, but the consequence was that Das Gehege came too much as an anti-climax after Dallapiccola’s shattering masterpiece.