Der goldene Drache by Peter Eötvös in Koblenz

The opera Der goldene Drache at the Theater Koblenz was my first encounter with the music of Peter Eötvös and it made a strong impression. Its compelling character lies in its ability to underpin the drama and the text through short rhythmic phrases, percussive timbres and some melodic ideas which, as the piece develops, can be quite lyrical. Modern it maybe, but not austere. This work was written for a small orchestra and the reduced sound emanating from the pit enabled much of the text to come across – though, in the absence of surtitles, comprehension was for me still a problem.

The libretto is an adaptation of a play by Roland Schimmelpfennig (whose Winter Solstice I recently much admired – see It is complex, interweaving different sets of characters in different situations: a worker in an Asian restaurant suffering from acute toothache but unable to obtain treatment because he is an illegal immigrant; two stewardesses visiting the restaurant; an old man, communicating his desire to become young again to his pregnant granddaughter; a young woman resorting to prostitution as the only means of having money enough to eat. While at first there is a certain macabre humour in the way they behave, bleakness and hopelessness tinged with violence soon descends on them. Improvised removal of the offending tooth leads to a bloody death; for the others there is no way out from their misery.

What straddles the diversity in the drama and gives it unity is the alienation of the characters and the indifference of the cold, unfeeling world around them to their plight. The swapping of genders by the performers did not make it always easy to follow their antics, but the device served to underline that the morality, of lack of it, in the piece involves us all.

The production by Elmar Goerden presented the grimness of the piece in harsh outline, adroitly moving the cast from one short scene to another with swift change of costume and clever use of props. The abstract setting, designed by Silvia Merlo and Ulf Stengl, largely boxes at an angle, worked well to frame the action. The singers with multiple roles (Monica Mascus, Junho Lee, Peter Koppelmann and Christoph Plessers) met the considerable vocal and dramatic demands made of them with distinction. Only Hana Lee, as the stricken immigrant, had the luxury of a single role and she was superb, bringing pathos to her pure-toned soprano for the monologue towards the end in which she fantasizes about a journey to a better world. The conductor Mino Marani coordinated the virtuoso instrumental effects with the drama most impressively.

I would like to see Der goldene Drache again soon – and that is a good test for the effectiveness of a new work – preferably in an English translation. A pity that I missed the performances of it given by Music Theatre Wales.