Chornobyldorf – a look back and one forward

Chornobyldorf – a look back and one forward

Michaela Preiner

Foto: ( )


September 2022

The threat to the earth posed by technological progress, hybrid forms of human beings who practise art genres that can nevertheless never be animated by them, but "Chornobyldorf" contains all this and much more. Apart from all artistic intention, the piece is also a strong commitment to Europe.

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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