Schnittke’s Life with an Idiot in Giessen

First performed in 1992, Schnittke’s opera Life with an Idiot initially achieved some notoriety and success across Europe but recently seems to have fallen out of favour. That is a pity because unquestionably it is a masterpiece. It is remarkable that a small company like that in Giessen should have the imagination and courage to mount the piece and even more remarkable that its complexities and qualities should be communicated so impressively. For make no mistake, this powerful work firmly associated with the rich Russian tradition of surreal, absurdist theatre, and containing a satirical political subtext, is difficult to perform both dramatically and musically.

The story is that of I, an individual who, as punishment for a minor crime, has to receive within his house a lunatic, Vova. The latter, who cannot articulate anything beyond the monosyllabic “Ach”, has some appealing characteristics, thus ingratiating himself with I and his wife. But anarchy soon develops, as Volvo, exploiting the hospitality, begins to break up the household, tears apart the volumes of Proust, rapes the wife and enters into a homosexual relationship with I. Throughout an oratorio-like chorus comment on proceedings. As the populace, they are well trained to declaim political slogans and seeing in Vova a Lenin-alike inspirational leader they articulate the precepts of the new order.

It is to the great credit of director Georg Rootering and designer Lukas Noll that the production is not too complicated. The narrative is presented with clarity and its significance projected through a series of images juxtaposing the grotesque with the banal. First, the conjugal bed at the end of a tunnel lined with Russian icons and political posters. Then, as the stage revolves, an inner sanctum where intimacies take place surrounded by the public world inhabited by ageing citizens wearing traditional costumes but pushing trundlers.  Physical movements on the stage reflect Schnittke’s brilliant, eclectic music: for the outer world under bright lights, they are often provocatively frenetic and violent; then they shift into military regularity for the discipline of enforced conformism. Sometimes, as darkness descends, and the inner world of the protagonists’ emotional life comes into view, a quiet lyricism takes over.

No praise can be too high for the three principal soloists: Gabriel Urrutia as I, Annika Gerhards as his wife, and Bernd Könnes as Vova. The huge demands of the vocal writing were negotiated with aplomb, even while engaged in highly energetic physical exertions and contortions. The young conductor Martin Spahr at the head of the Giessen Philharmonic Orchestra brought out to great dramatic effect all the contrasting dimensions of the score.

At the end of two hours plus of exciting musical theatre, we in the audience were left to ponder on the grim truths of how individual lives and humane ideals can be shattered by tyrannical regimes led by mindless individuals.