Wednesday, October 6 2010
Jens Joneleit, Metanoia - über das Denken hinaus
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Rest of cast/artistic team here
Every time a crazy new Regietheater production arrives in the States, somebody inevitably poses the age-old question: “If they wanted La Traviata to show prostitutes fighting werewolves in space, why didn’t they just write an opera about that?” That is, if the concept seems to have nothing to do with the opera, then why not just create a new opera that matches the concept?
Be careful what you wish for. Jens Joneleit’s Metanoia - über das Denken hinaus is a problematic solution to that dilemma, the ultimate work of Regie: it is an opera about concepts themselves. It takes a slew of intellectual, cultural, artistic, and philosophical theories and stews them together into seventy minutes of dreadful musical theater.
Joneleit, a youngish German composer, is virtually unknown in America, and I went to the Staatsoper on Wednesday night with no particular expectations. Metanoia was initially overseen by the late director Christoph Schlingensief; when he passed away in August, a team of collaborators, organized without a leader, stepped in to pick up where Schlingensief left off.
There is a kind of purposeful uncertainty to the artistic climate of the work—a program insert noted, “We don’t know exactly what has come into being, but we wish and hope that something of him [Schlingensief] lives in this production.” The artistic team chooses to leave scenic aspects of the opera deliberately half-complete, with unfinished wooden scaffolding filling the stage and Schlingensief’s ambiguous film projections running in the background independent of the action. It is a bold move, and one that had the potential to be a theatrical coup—the incomplete can take on a certain grandeur, as in the trailing off in the final contrapunctus of the Art of Fugue. But aside from a handful of engaging dramatic moments, the opera fell flat.
The libretto, freely drawn from a text by René Pollesch, which itself is freely drawn from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, gradually deconstructs itself as the opera progresses. It opens with a chorus clad in androgynous, full-body naked suits, vaguely resembling Teletubbies in the tinted yellow light. Five principal singers move in and out of the chorus, less playing characters than embodying ideas—infection, evolution, Dionysus, Apollo. They debate and ruminate on their various contradictory platitudes—“We must die so that we must live,” “Memory is forgetting”—in thick, elastic vocal lines reminiscent of Berg, but without the Expressionism of Wozzeck or the lyricism of Lulu. The diatribes are in the tradition of the philosophical meditations of the Captain and the Doctor in Wozzeck, who view the presence of the title character as an opportunity to espouse their manic ideas.
These deep musings might have succeeded theatrically if Joneleit’s music weren’t so forgettable. It began solidly, with a brief, crackling orchestral prelude which launched directly into the stern opening chorus. Though constantly moving, with jittery strings and furious brass, the music lacked momentum. Rarely did the orchestra command any narrative presence (albeit with persuasive conducting from Daniel Barenboim), and, despite being sung well, the vocal parts were not particularly stirring.
One moment stuck out and offered a bit of promise which the rest of the opera did not fulfill. About halfway through the madness, the main soprano walked out into the audience singing her abstract text achingly, while the chorus chanted those famous words of the Ode to Joy, “Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?” There was something completely bizarre about hearing Schiller’s poem in an atonal, non-Beethoven context, a defamiliarization which struck at the core of Joneleit’s concept.
I wish I could have come out of the opera with a sense that the artistic team’s intentions were realized. Metanoia isn’t really a meditation on something; it’s a meditation on meditation. As a novel, a treatise, or even a play, such a concept might work. But opera, in one of its many contradictions, requires both less and more. I could have done without the philosophical trappings if there was a good score. And if there was a good score, I probably would have demanded much more out of the libretto and production. Instead, I was left with the sinking feeling that another opportunity for a great new opera was wasted.