Maggio Musicale Fiorentina 2019 Review: Lear

Desolate, Bleak And Brilliant Production Of Reimann’s Masterpiece

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Michele Monasta)

Shakespeare has been a source of many operas and musical works over the centuries. In 1978, the German composer, Aribert Reimann added his version of “King Lear” to the catalogue, with the premier of his opera “Lear” at the Bayerische Staatsoper. Although not initially a runaway success with the public, it was well-appreciated by the critics, and has since gone on to establish itself internationally, chalking up performances at such prestigious venues as San Francisco Opera, the Salzburg Festival and Paris’ Opera Bastille, winning many admirers along the way.

In 2001, it received its Italian premiere in Turin’s Teatro Reggio, in an English translation, first used for San Francisco. It has now just received its first performances in the original German, at the Festival del Maggio Musicale, in Florence, under the musical direction of Fabio Luisi and director, Calixto Bieito.

Power Destroys Love

Shakespeare’s play focuses on the nature of power and its relationship to love, and in certain ways prefigures Wagner’s examination of the subject. Although they approach it from very different angles, their conclusions are remarkably similar; when the pursuit of power intervenes, the bonds of love will fracture, and murderous consequences will ensue.

The old king, Lear, wishes to renounce his power and divide his kingdom between his three daughters, but in return wants them to tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Regan, sensing a chance of a power grab are full of insincere protestations of filial love, while Cordelia, who truly loves her father is unable to voice her feelings. Lear, angered by her silence, disinherits her and divides his kingdom between her sisters. And so the die is cast; the sisters embolden by their newly acquired power now have no need of their old father, nor of each other, which sets in motion a train of events, ending in the death of almost the entire cast. The events are mirrored in a subplot, in which Edmund attempts to usurp his brother’s inheritance, and eliminate his father, which again ends with murderous consequences.

Reimann and his librettist, Claus Henneberg, stuck very closely to Shakespeare’s original, although cutting some of the minor characters, and of course losing a significant amount of the dialogue along the way, resulting in a more streamlined, simplified and less subtle version. However, through Reimann’s dense, dark and multi-layered music, it is able to explore with greater effectiveness the psychology of Lear’s personality, and to a lesser extent that of the other characters. Moreover, the opera possesses an unrelenting degree of intensity and moves with greater rapidity than Shakespeare’s play.

No Breathing Room

Reimann’s music is discordant, heavy and largely atonal, and clearly owes a debt to Berg, and to the coloristic school. The score makes heavy use of brass, whose raucous sounds and screams are used to unsettling effect to help define the atmosphere of the work, along with the psychological instability of the characters. This is further underlined by the large percussion section which frequently intervenes in a menacing fashion, and the large banks of strings constantly shouting for attention. It is a harrowing, disturbing and violent soundscape, with no space left for the audience to reflect. There are no oases of calm. That the Act one musical interlude, representing the storm, is actually one of the more relaxing moments is telling. Fabio Luisi, conducting the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentina, produced a detailed, controlled performance, which uncovered the multiple layers within the score, and generated the searing intensity, essential for promoting the drama.

Bieito’s direction fully embraced the violence, menace and trauma which saturates the work. He produced a desolate reading, bereft of hope, and seemed positively happy to expose the damaged psychologies of the protagonists. Supported by the scenographer, Rebecca Ringst, whose minimalist set consisted of vertical black wooden planks as a backdrop which, over the course of the opera, were lowered down towards the stage. The singers acted in front of them, with no props, which accentuated the intimate nature of the drama. Occasional choral interjections were delivered by the chorus, standing behind the wooden planks.

During the second act, black and white video projections of animal heads and eyeballs were projected onto the back wall. Frank Evin, the lighting designer ensured that the set was almost always in a state of permanent semi-darkness, further promoting the heavy and violent atmosphere. The only real color, and only in small measure, came from the costumes, which were of mid to late 20th century design, with no connection to royalty, dukes or fools.

Every costume was typical of that worn by an average person. It was a staging which focused on the intimate connections between the characters, without any distracting clutter. This successfully promoted the intense nature of their relationships, and highlighted their dysfunctional mental states.

A Monster Humanized

Lear is not a likable character. He is egotistical, deluded and demanding, and so it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him, and in this production these negative traits were magnified. Insisting his daughters tell him how much they love him, and oblivious to the contradictions in such a request, and to the likelihood of deception, he not only punishes Cordelia for not complying, by denying her part of his kingdom, but also flies into a rage and physically assaults her. Although taken in by Goneril and Cordelia’s professed love, he contemptuously throws large pieces of bread at them, who gobble at it greedily.

By the end of the opera, however, he has found redemption, through Cordelia’s steadfast love and death. Yet, he is unable to respond, he is a broken man, his mind no longer responds: the price he must pay for his actions in conflating power with love (In the opera Lear does not die, unlike in Shakespeare’s play). The path travelled by Lear has been a long and tortuous one, passing through the realms of lucidity, semi-madness and madness. Obviously, such a role requires singing and acting of the highest quality, and that is exactly what the Danish baritone, Bo Skovhus, delivered.

Skovhus dug deep into Lear’s psyche, and produced a multi-layered and nuanced performance, which was always sensitive to the minutiae of Lear’s changing mental state, and which found form in his contorted facial expressions and emotionally charged acting, which frequently veered into the bizarre and absurd.

This was complemented by a vocal performance which was also founded upon Lear’s emotional instability. Skovhus singing was clearly enunciated, colorful and powerful; it was also heavily accented to underline Lear’s tortuous mental condition. One minor criticism, which can be forgiven, is that physically and vocally Skovhus bore no resemblance whatsoever to a man in his final years, who is supposed to be old and frail.

Three Sisters

Goneril played by soprano, Angeles Blancas Gulin, gave a strident performance, in which the steely tone and monochromatic character of her voice captured her cold-hearted ambition. It was a fierce and powerful presentation, one in which Gulin constantly pushed towards the limits of her voice, but of which she never lost control.

Her sister, Regan, played by Erika Sunnegårdh, was more hysterical and capable of the most horrific deeds, such as when she gouges out one of Gloucester’s eyes, but lacked the clinical and conscious viciousness of Goneril. Sunnegårdh gave a compelling portrayal, in which her bright spiraling soprano beautifully captured her increasingly volatile behavior.

Cordelia, being one of the more normal characters, was restricted to the margins, and her appearances were downplayed. She was portrayed as unambiguously and flatly good, without any sense that she too was experiencing serious trauma, as the world around her tore itself apart in horrendous acts of violence. Agneta Eichenholz, playing the role, nevertheless sang well, impressing with her clear diction, attractive timbre and bright, secure upper register.

Betraying Brotherhood

The countertenor, Andrew Watts, gave a superb performance as Edgar. Needing to escape his father and brother, he seeks refuge in a hovel, and adopts the persona of a madman, called Poor Tom. Dressed in only his underwear and covered in filth he certainly looked like someone who had lost their mind, and acted out the part skilfully. Moreover, he crafted an excellent vocal portrait, in which he inflected the voice with dynamic and colorful coating, with wild and vibrant and phrasing.

Edgar’s brother, Edmund, is set on achieving power at any cost. Andreas Conrad, who essayed the role, was not so much evil, as completely insane. From his first appearance he was wild, clearly out of control and full of hatred. Often his voice verged towards screaming and shouting, which he was happy to intensify in line with the increasingly frenetic music. And it was fine performance.

Edgar and Edmund’s father, the Duke of Gloucester, mirrors Lear. He is blind to the true feelings his sons’ have for him, and therefore easy to manipulate. Old age has made him vulnerable. Playing the role was the Turkish baritone, Levent Bakirci, who, again mirroring Skovhus’ Lear, looked and sounded much younger. He made an excellent impression nonetheless. His voice possesses an interesting array of colors, which he projects well, with clear, well-focused intonation,

The Duke of Kent who is pathologically loyal to Lear, morally correct and with a reasonably sound mind, morphs into the realm that divides sanity and insanity. Towards the end of Act one he is found sitting under a plastic sheet, next to Lear who is rapidly losing his mind, Edgar, who is pretending to be mad, and the Fool, who plays with mental perspectives, in what was a finely crafted metaphor which acknowledges the continuum of mental states which links us all together, and begs the question, where does madness begin and clarity end? Kent was played by the tenor, Kor-Jan Dusseljee, who gave a convincing performance.

The Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Albany were give forceful presentations by tenor, Michael Colvin, and the bass-baritone Derek Welton.

The Fool is speaking role, although more akin to sprechstimme, and was parted by Ernst Alisch. Bare chested and wearing a black trilby hat, and playing the role in an emotionally detached manner, he put in a strong, vibrant performance, which was made more impressive by the fact that he is 79 years of age, and his voice still retains power and a good shape.

To say that this was an enjoyable experience would be to use the wrong adjective, at least in its immediate aftermath, for this was an emotionally exhausting piece of theatre. It was desolate and bleak, and confronted the audience with the loneliness of the human condition, brought about through our own determination not to see our fellow man in ourselves, and in which reconciliation can only be found through death.

Reimann’s “Lear” opened up the abyss, and it was not a pleasant experience, but it was brilliantly done. “Lear” is now widely considered to be a modern classic, and the audience who gave this production a sustained and enthusiastic reception would no doubt agree.

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