Schoeck’s Penthesilea in Bonn

Othmar Schoeck is not a familiar name. The Swiss composer is perhaps best known today for his lieder but he also wrote several operas. His career spanning the two world wars never projected him into the international limelight, perhaps because he was isolated from the main musical developments; and his works reveal stylistic uncertainties, as he shifted inconsistently between expressionism and serialism. However, his one-act opera Penthesilea, currently being performed in Bonn, is a powerful piece, suggesting that some further revival of his compositions should be encouraged.

The main source of Penthesilea is Kleist’s play with the same title, itself based on Homer. It centres on the plight of the Queen of the Amazons who is forbidden by the rules of her clan from taking a male lover unless he is defeated by her in battle. She is duped by Achilles into believing that he indeed fell under her sword, thus enabling them to consummate their mutual love. When she learns the truth, she kills both him and herself. Schoeck’s score makes much of this Greek tragedy with driving rhythms, harsh percussive chords and plangent melodic ideas which at moments, when illusions of happiness conceal unpleasant realities, take on a lyrical quality.

The conductor Dirk Kaftan chose the work to inaugurate his regime as musical director of the Bonn Opera and his admiration for it was much evident in the highly dramatic, energetic but also sensitive performance. He had worked with the renowned director Peter Konwitschny at other theatres and we were fortunate that the latter could be persuaded to take on Penthesliea which is ideally suited to his talents. In other hands, the opera might have been refashioned as a trite, feminist fable, but Konwitschny concentrated on the essential universal theme of the forces of fate constraining human freedom and fulfilment and did so with the aid of brilliant stagecraft.

A large, flat performing area had been erected between the stage, on which the orchestra played, and the auditorium. While the main action took place on this platform, surrounding it and integrated in the audience were the chorus and some of the soloists who stood up to interject comments or, at the climax, jumped on the platform to communicate their feelings physically. Sitting amongst them, the audience could not but be involved; and this all-embracing perspective on the drama was enhanced by some ingenious devices. For example, on the platform were two pianos (they play a prominent part in Schoeck’s orchestra) and they – with their pianists – contributed to the action, moving together as the lovers approached coition, or covering Penthesilea’s wounded body. Then when, at the end, she emerged to deliver her monologue, reflecting on what had happened, and why, she did so clad in a concert evening gown and singing from a score. The “theatre” of action had ended. Distanced from it, we had to return to the conventions of ordinary life; yet intellectually engage with the essentials of what we had experienced.

The performers had been immaculately prepared for the demands which the music and the production imposed on them. I limit specific comments to just three of them. In the title role Dshamilja Kaiser gave a full-blooded account of the Amazonian’s dilemma, combining vocal delivery of a Wagnerian intensity with agile physical antics. Christian Miedl’s long-haired and brightly sung Achilles was utterly convincing both in his sly machinations and in his amorous ardour. Aile Asszonyi as Prothoe, Penthesilea’s friend and confidante but also a bemused onlooker, offered, by way of contrast, a compassionate emotional and very human response to the tragedy arising from the convention-breaking exploits.