Reimann’s Bernarda Albas Haus in Gelsenkirchen

Gelsenkirchen’s Musiktheater in Revier has always been known for adventurous approach and its recent performance of Aribert Reimann’s Bernarda Albas Haus showed that that reputation was being maintained.

Viel spass !” (Have fun!), the theatre lady said to me as she served me a pre-performance tea. She could not have known much about what I was going to see, for the Reimann involved absolutely no spass. A recent operatic adaptation of Lorca’s grim picture of an early 20th century matriarchal Spanish household, it is unrelentingly severe in its account of how the lives of five young women are ruined by their tyrannical mother. The austere world in which frustrated emotional longings can hardly be contained is flawlessly reproduced in the production by the experienced Dietrich Hilsdorf and his designers Dieter Richter and Nicola Reichert.

For those already familiar with Lorca’s drama, the more pertinent question is: how will the composer’s adaptation of it, and very contemporary musical idiom, work with the original? Now, Reimann is very gifted and his Lear is perhaps the finest modern operatic setting of Shakespeare. He does not disappoint with this later venture, notwithstanding the very different character of the play being adapted. Indeed, the unrelenting harshness and absence of affection and compassion in the text suits perfectly his musical style. The vocal lines communicate their content through uncomfortable intervals and the orchestral accompaniment, most often given by small groups of instruments, is predominantly stringent. But, to enhance dramatic interplay, this pattern is subject to important modulation.  So, for example, when there is a rare concordance of feelings among the five daughters, the instrumental chords become light, the female voices move towards unison, and the musical phrasing almost lyrical. Another significant device is to introduce, at moments of critical interaction, spoken dialogue.

The precision which conductor Johannes Harneit brought to proceedings was truly remarkable; as was the physical and vocal characterisation of the protagonists.  Almuth Herbst was the ruthless mother, unbending in her convictions and, as her austere, hardened vocalisation demonstrated, unfeeling in relation to others. Australian soprano Katherine Allen brought warmth and emotional fibre to her interpretation of Adela, the daughter most victimised by Bernarda’s intolerance. As the eldest daughter, with some degree of financial independence, and thus standing, Lina Hoffmann conveyed some appropriate dignity but also a brittleness in the face of aggression. The young Korean Soyoon Lee endowed the hunchback Martirio with a striking combination of pathos and hostile rebellion, spewing out the high-lying notes with virtuosic venom. Vital and moving contributions, too, from Sabine Hofgrefe and Anke Sieloff as the two maids.

Not an easy work to experience for two and a half hours without an interval, but most rewarding in every respect.