Yesterday, I attended the last performance in Oper Frankfurt's premiere run of Die Gespenstersonate, Aribert Reimann's 1984 opera based on Strindberg's play of the same name. Walter Sutcliffe's production, making use of a stage placed diagonally between two tribunes in the Bockenheimer Depot, was sleek, with appropriate twists of the surreal and the claustrophobic. The space was used very well, I thought; although Strindberg's rivalry with Ibsen made the use of a dollhouse ironic, the image worked well in setting up a drama where voyeurism and manipulation are central. I also quite liked Kaspar Glarner's costuming, precise in its evocation of differing periods, alluding to the zombielike endurance of the bourgeoisie which Strindberg and Reimann dissect. Lear being the only one of Reimann's operas I had any previous familiarity with, I was worried that I might miss a lot in the music. But while I may have missed much that would repay further study, I found Die Gespenstersonate direct, emotionally gripping, instantly drawing the listeners into its world. Each of the figures has a distinct musical characterization, brought out vocally and in the orchestra. The small ensemble, led by Karsten Januschke, deserves high praise for a clean, richly textured performance. The strings were truly spectral, with creeping tritones not the only thing suggesting something devilish about the sinister Direktor Hummel. Low woodwinds droned menacingly; the piano and harmonium (both played by Vytis Sakuras) provided the parlor music of nightmares. Always closely bound to the text, the orchestral writing built the suspense of a drama that shows a world of jealousies and pretense, of exploitation and self-protection, a society "sick at the spring of life."
The singers in this intricate and sometimes surreal parable were consistently impressive. Nina Tarendek showed a sweet-toned and controlled mezzo in the role of the "dark woman," the consul's daughter; as the vampiric cook, Stine Marie Fischer handled difficult intervals and a large range with aplomb. The crucial roles of the servants Johansson and Bengtsson were well sung and characterized by Hans-Jürgen Schöpflin and Björn Bürger, respectively. As the fleshy, ineffectual patriarch, the Oberst, tenor Brian Galliford acted brilliantly, through voice and gesture alike. Barbara Zechmeister, as the daughter of the house, shaped the serenade to the sun elegantly and poignantly. Alexander Mayr handled the difficult intervals of the student Arkenholz courageously, and acted credibly the young man's naiveté. The "mummy," the old woman of precarious sanity whose youthful self is a paragon of beauty, reminisced about and fetishized, was sung by Anja Silja, magnificent and uncanny. I found myself wondering, watching her, why we turn so readily to metaphors--stage animal, force of nature--for performances which so successfully touch a raw nerve of humanity. Silja was commanding in voice and gesture alike; emerging from her trapdoor-wardrobe emitting loud, unsettling parrot trills, contemptuously instructing the student, or bringing Hummel, finally to his knees, her Sprechstimme serving as threat and judgment. The lean and hungry conspirator Hummel, who toys with cities and individuals, was masterfully sung by baritone Dietrich Volle, credible as a man consumed by malice, and haunted by his own crimes. A dangerous man, he enjoys holding power over others, even as he knows how fragile that power is. He is finally crushed by a past that has cannibalized its future.