Four women and one man

Four women and one man

The premiere of “canvas” by Slovenian composer Nina Šenk and librettist Simona Semenič was shown. Šenk was awarded the prize of the Johann-Joseph-Fux Opera Composition Competition after the performance, which she had won with this opera.

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“canvas” (Foto: ORF musikprotokoll/Martin Gross)

It tells the story of four women who – without knowing it – love the same man. The latter flutters, as he pleases, from one to the other and tries to maneuver the women into emotional dependencies and keep them. Ingo Kerkhof – KUG professor of music drama (scenic interpretation) directed, Katharina Zotter provided the set and Gerrit Prießnitz was responsible for the musical direction.

The orchestra was moved to the left wall of the hall, and the conductor stood with his back to the wall, thus having both the instrumental ensemble and the singers in view. A square, white-covered revolving platform, a few centimeters high, marked the area where the music was played and sung. In addition, the singers took turns acting at a desk facing the audience at the right edge of the stage.

The female students slipped into different roles, miming, among others, a part of factory workers. A young girl experienced her tragic death on a hospital stretcher right at the beginning. Her alter-ego sang about this process as if the dying girl was watching herself die. The exact circumstances that led to this death remained unresolved – speculations on this may clearly be individual.

The captivating libretto, consisting of short, terse movements, with repetitions and sometimes rude expressions, offered the composer a great deal of emotional fodder, which had to be sonically realized. Šenk succeeded in leaving the voices in the foreground extraordinarily audible and in using the instrumental part only as a support.

Only at one point, in which a sexual abuse is told, does the orchestra play a much stronger role. In this part, the text is spoken for the most part and the violent event is made clear by the raging in the instruments with crashing and clattering sounds. In this scene, all the women stand motionless on the platform, dressed in black, and persist in that position until one of them whispers, “I have to be quiet when it’s time to be quiet.” This phrase is picked up by the others and turned into a whisper song that gets under your skin.

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“canvas” (Foto: ORF musikprotokoll/Martin Gross)

Well brought out were the various characters – married women fearful for the discovery of their affair, a young girl asking God to deliver her, a factory worker who sees in the man the highest fulfillment, a lady who begins to feel youthful again through the happiness of love. The Womanizer himself – also portrayed by one of the women – comes into play only briefly and is shown neither seductive nor violent. Only one woman stands outside the love spiral. She is announced as a fat Italian woman who comes on stage without singing and leaves again. She is the only one who does not seem to be emotionally dependent, but based on the body description should have a strong sexual attraction.

The composer uses quartets, but also solo arias, and marked the scene changes with loud breathing sounds amplified by microphone. It is the particularly successful balance of speech and music that makes this performance so special. Helpful, but also aesthetically well solved, was the projection of the English text on a large screen behind the singers. In addition, these, students of the Music University Graz, were all perfectly disposed.

Melis Demiray, Lavinia Husmann, Laure-Cathérine Beyers, Marija-Katarina Jukić, Ellen Rose Kelly, Christine Rainer and Ana Vidmar are to be congratulated on their great performance.

Janáček in the church

Janáček in the church

An opera with a length of only three-quarters of an hour must have a libretto that skilfully summarises a plot that extends over a period of several weeks. However, Leoš Janáček’s text for his opera ‘Katja Kabanova’ bumps along a little. This may be due to the fact that he himself cut the text down to a condensate based on a drama by the Russian Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrowski (1823 – 1886), which does not really explain the character of many of the figures in it. Ostrowski published his drama under the title “Thunderstorm” in 1859, which is remarkable in that the writer made the hypocrisy of society with regard to adultery and sexual desire, as well as subjugation in a family system, the main themes of his play. Little known to us, he is one of the greats of Russian literature and exerted a strong influence on Leo Tolstoy.

A scope for interpretation or confusion?

The work had its premiere at the Graz Opera on 18.3.2023, for which the team around director Anika Rutkofsky further complicated the already somewhat lurching plot with some directorial ideas, so that in the end the question arises: How much room for interpretation, how many mythological references, how many plot reinterpretations can a play tolerate in order to remain comprehensible? As it turns out, great efforts sometimes do not always lead to the goal.

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Leoš Janáček’s “Katja Kabanova” at Graz Opera ( Photo: © Werner Kmetitsch)

Which brings the criticism to its core. The director places the action in an ecclesiastical setting, more precisely in the interior of an Orthodox village church. Dikoj, (Wilfried Zelinka), who in Ostrowski and Janáček was still identified as a merchant, becomes the priest of the parish, his nephew Boris, entrusted to his care, his novice. (Arnold Rutkofski) The idea of placing the story in an Orthodox religious context pushes the actual message that every society is hypocritical and seeks scapegoats far away from the Graz audience. Rather, from the red plush chair of the opera, this constellation tempts one to point the finger at a system that “doesn’t happen that way in our country”.

In the very first minutes after the curtain rises, one witnesses a man on a ladder wiping the communist crescent symbol off a church window, which will later be replaced by an image of the Virgin Mary. This clarifies the time horizon in which the drama takes place. We are apparently shortly after the collapse of the USSR. In front of the interior of the church is a blue-tiled wall with an entrance familiar from swimming pools. In the second act, this swimming pool will be extended by a small room that will serve as a lovers’ ladder. The programme booklet explains: “Eleni Konstantatou’s stage space – a swimming pool church – makes the change of system architecturally visible: the St. Peter’s Church of a Protestant parish near Nevsky Prospekt, which was converted into a swimming pool under communism, is the inspiration for this. Today, mass is celebrated again on the covered pool, with the altar stone still reminiscent of the diving board.”

The reduction of the play’s message through the orthodox religious framework

The mendacity of society that Ostrowski exposed in his drama is downgraded in the Graz opera version to a bigotry in which there is no room for deep religious enlightenment or public confession of one’s fallibility.

Katja Kabanova (Marjukka Tepponen), the young wife of Tikhon (Matthias Koziorowski) is entirely under the curatorship of her despotic mother-in-law, who will not let her son off his motherly leash. When he has to leave the village for a fortnight, his wife suspects disaster. She senses that her hitherto unfulfilled sexuality will be the occasion for a marriage betrayal. And indeed, it only takes a few hours before she gives herself to Boris, Dikoj’s nephew, who until then could only adore her from afar.

In the scene in which the two young people find their way to each other, the stage is filled with all kinds of parallel mating variations. Later, the costumes will show that members of the religious community, who constantly cross themselves in church, obviously only know morality from hearsay.

Janáček’s outstanding music as a lifeline

As convoluted as the libretto and the staging themselves may appear, they are soothingly contrasted by the music of Leoš Janáček with the conducting of Roland Kluttig. Next to fiery sounds with hard and deep winds that announce disaster, there are highly lyrical passages that allow us to dive deep into various states of mind. Katja Kabanova herself is endowed with several wonderful arias, which Tepponen interprets with increasing brilliance as the performance progresses. Her acting portrayal of this young woman should also be highlighted. Every emotion, every event she reports comes across authentically to the audience. The folk song motifs that the composer has assigned to the character of Kudryash (Mario Lerchenberger) are also wonderful to listen to. The womaniser role he embodies in Graz pushes these heartfelt melodies into the drawer of a cold-blooded, savvy seducer, which means they can only be perceived as sweet at first.

In Janáček’s compositional technique, one can often easily understand the sound of individual words performed and entire movements. For example, the role of Katja’s mother-in-law (Iris Vermillion) has some hard and edgy interjections, in which the sentence “Mankind wants to be deceived” is also uttered. On the other hand, small cascades of melody that sway up and down make those birds audible that Katja sings about when she thinks about how much she would like to be free. However, they appear once more – shortly before the young woman, outcast from society, chooses suicide. The fact that Katja’s husband Tichon also falls victim to social lynch law in the end, because he comes out as homosexual in the Graz version, is also a directorial idea by Anika Rutkofsky.

Marie Sturminger’s costume potpourri reveals a rural society that has none of the chic of Moscow’s upper crust. Only the pompous habit of the Popen and the dazzling white Sunday staffage of Kabanicha, the wicked mother-in-law, convey glamour and thus at the same time her claim to authority.

An excellent ensemble makes for a successful evening

Musically, the ensemble performs extremely uniformly at a high level. There are no outliers downwards, which is very good for the performance. In addition to those already mentioned, Mareike Jankowski as the sister-in-law and Martin Fournier in the role of Kuligin should be singled out here. It is the performance of the singers and also the orchestra that make the evening in the Graz Opera an experience. Even if the staging itself can be hotly debated.

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Chornobyldorf – a look back and one forward

Chornobyldorf – a look back and one forward

In the darkness of the hall, a man’s voice becomes audible. It tells of how what is being spoken is actually the end of a letter; a letter that was never sent, but will nevertheless be written one day. Shortly afterwards, his voice is visually accompanied by a woman whose portrait appears on a video. While the man speaks and recites a long poem in Ukrainian, she begins to express herself with onomatopoeic sounds in an unknown artificial language. Although – if you don’t speak Ukrainian – you can neither follow the content of the man’s voice nor know exactly what the woman wants to say, you get a feeling that what is being conveyed here results from experiences that are painful.

In fact, the title “Chornobyldorf. Archeological opera” is already a hint that one reference of this new opera is the tragedy of Chernobyl. The combination with the noun affix ‘dorf’ came about because the ensemble visited Zwentendorf and its surroundings at the beginning of the work. The nuclear power plant in Austria, which never went into operation, and the one in Ukraine, whose construction began in 1970, before the country’s independence, prompted the Ukrainian cultural creators to come up with the idea of a global view of the subject of nuclear power plants and their dystopian effects; regardless of where these reactors are located, they pose a cross-border threat to humanity.

The opera is set between the 23rd – 27th centuries, in a time when we have long been history and will be gone. It is based on the assumption of a world-spanning catastrophe in which the survivors must once again become aware of their identity. In a future in which new rituals are created and yet everything that happens interpersonally in societies consciously or unconsciously draws on historical models.

The seven chapters, which merge into one another without a break but still recognisably, bear the headings: Elektra, Dramma per musica, Rhea, The little Akkorden girl, Messe de Chornobyldorf, Orfeo ed Euridice and Saturnalia. In this way, the two composers Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko on the one hand take up great Greek myths, which became the primary breeding ground of European art production. On the other hand, they refer directly to Slavic musical traditions. This artistic interlocking, in which different musical stylistic means are used, makes one thing clear: the people who are on stage here and all those who worked on this opera see themselves as deeply belonging to Europe. The current discussion about admitting Ukraine to the EU is legitimised in a quasi cultural-historical way in the historical references that are made here. But what makes Europe, the individuality of the countries and their different ethnic groups, is also vehemently expressed. Again and again, historical musical quotations – transformed into modern sound images – are replaced by Bosnian-Herzegovinian and Ukrainian folk tunes. Lamentations as well as wedding songs are sung in their typical melodic line. Unison lines separate into a briefly audible microtonality that is centuries old and yet sounds new and fresh. Seconds detaching themselves from it, already almost purely felt, as well as subsequent seventh leaps intensify the emotionally painful expression. Mahlerian chord progressions, sung chorally, and a fugue by Bach that seems to go out of control, lay a music-historical trace in that core of Europe that literally set the tone from the Baroque to the last century.

All this is met by a wealth of new sound material: weird string sounds, the most diverse, sometimes strongly accentuated rhythms, played on a percussion construct assembled from various found objects (Evhen Bal), as well as electronic additions that make wind atmospheres or a threatening, indefinable drone audible.

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Chornobyl Village (Photo: Anastasiia Yakovenko eSel)

A rapid succession of images, supported by video inserts showing fragile human figures in Ukrainian landscapes, frequent changes of persons and costumes as well as the creation of emotional alternating baths, create an abundance of theatrical events that wash over you like a tsunami. At the same time, one is drawn into the sometimes somnambulistic events in such a way that it is difficult to put one’s cognitive abilities above one’s own strong feelings.

The almost surreal, yet at the same time highly romantic “coronation” of a young accordionist, supported by a video feed that expands the space, is replaced by religious sounds and images. A fitting Agnus Dei, sung in a classical-harmonic structure, is interrupted by a similar, but explosively punk-like one. Shockingly, one finds oneself in the here and now, in a state in which romanticism no longer finds a place. Euridice’s entombment, the lament of her Orpheus, is realised in a visually powerful choreography in which the nakedness of the participants particularly emphasises their fragility and need for protection. The finale is a saturnal orgy around a cardboard portrait of Lenin turned upside down.  Everything that has previously accumulated in inexpressible feelings and suffering, everything that is difficult to talk about, dissolves in this wild, exuberant scene in which one would like to dance along oneself. The fact that the end with its wind noise is reminiscent of the beginning of the production may well symbolise an eternal cycle. A cycle in which the existentially human is ultimately lived over and over again, but is also reinvented, indeed must be reinvented. When nothing is the way it used to be, then one has to fall back on what lies dormant deep within the human being, but also what distinguishes him as a living being on earth. He is a being that is constantly reforming and adapting and yet still carries within him his supposedly cut roots.

None of the artists would have dreamed, when the opera was created, that so much of what is shown in it would be given a topical reference. The horrors of war and the suffering that is currently taking place in Ukraine resonate strongly in the reception at the moment. The threat to the earth posed by technological progress, hybrid forms of human beings practising artistic genres that can nevertheless never be animated by them, this too is contained in “Chornobyldorf”. It is to be hoped that the opera, after its premiere in Rotterdam and the second station in the WUK in Vienna, on the occasion of the ‘Musiktheatertage Wien’, may experience many more stations. And it is to be hoped that the ensemble will receive the message from the audience that a work like this, especially in difficult times, is one that is needed, and even more: that it also contributes to survival. In view of the brutality of the events, one singer said during the audience discussion that she was no longer convinced that theatre could achieve anything. The experience of violence, which suppresses everything, is too diametrically opposed to this idea.

May the statement “vita brevis, ars longa” give her and the ensemble a small shift. May it offer them a glimmer of hope that art outlasts life and thus also this, their production. It will be available to later generations one day – in whatever way – and offer a glimpse into that current present which is so hard to bear for the Ukrainian population, but also for all the other, suffering participants.

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