Bernd Uhlig/Staatsoper Unter den Linden im Schillertheater
Toshio Hosokawa's Matsukaze premiered July 15, 2011 at the Staatsoper as part of the festival Infektion!
Toshio Hosokawa's Matsukaze premiered July 15, 2011 at the Staatsoper as part of the festival Infektion! Bernd Uhlig/Staatsoper Unter den Linden im Schillertheater
Nô Theater and contemporary dance have traditionally inhabited distinctly separate spheres, let alone intermingled within the framework of an opera.
It took a force of nature and a fearless sense of artistic purpose to transform a Japanese art form dating back to the Middle Ages into dance music theater embracing the European avant-garde.
Toshio Hosokowa's Matsukaze, which premiered in Brussels earlier this year and had its German premiere at the Schiller Theater on July 15, is officially a "choreographed opera" by Berlin icon Sasha Waltz.
From the recorded seascape that begins the work, to a tapestry of expressionist movements that assume equal footing with the score, the work effectively defies musico-dramatic expectations.
Experimental theater and inter-culturality are no novelty for Waltz. She co-founded Berlin's alternative arts space Radialsystem and has enjoyed considerable success with opera-choreography since her first such work, Dido & Aeneas, in 2005.
To develop ideas for Matsukaze, Waltz traveled to Hosokowa's native region to experience the sounds of the landscape which inspired him.
Librettist Hannah Dübgen also worked closely with Hosokowa, a Japanese-born composer who studied in Berlin, to draw upon Nô while freeing the genre of conventions.
Traditionally, characters are masked, with men assuming both male and female roles.
Dübgen's German-language text adapts a 15th-century play about the souls of two wandering sisters, Matsukaze and Murasame, who once loved the same man. They appear to a Buddhist monk in search of release from their unresolved mortal attachment, only to find resolution by merging with the natural world.
In an eerie twist of fate, a tsunami and nuclear disaster struck Japan two months before Matsukaze was scheduled to take the stage.
Rather than rework the staging to address the event, the artistic team decided to let the drama speak for itself.
Hosokawa's score melds chimes and gongs of the eastern world with screeching strings and other signatures of German contemporary music in a swirling, at times darkly meditative, blend. Waltz mirrored the winding contours and spiritual introspection with a range of vocabulary at her disposal, from vibrant athleticism to swaying, classically-rounded movements.
As the opera progressed, however, ensembles sashaying in classic Waltz patterns rendered Matsukaze more like a choreography one could see at Radialsystem than a new opera.
In contrast, Hosokawa's music was often exceedingly sparse, like wisps of melodies that disappeared in the wind.
The most striking scene emerged with the appearance of the two sisters, who descended like spiders down a thickly netted, black web in which Waltz's dancers then climbed and swam as if trapped in oblivion.
Hosokawa's vocal music grew into ethereal parallel fifths and caressing chromatic turns.
The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan (Matsukaze) mastered challenging vocal leaps and, realizing Waltz's lofty goals for a choreographed opera, joined the troupe in sensuous movements with impressive grace. She was well-matched vocally by the mezzo Charlotte Hellekant (Murasame), yet it might have made sense to cast a sister with comparable dance ability.
As it were, little was choreographed for Hellekant.
Frode Olsen (the monk) delivered his mostly monotone lines with a steady, earthy bass, and Kai-Uwe Fahnert (the fisherman) rounded out the ensemble in fine form.
The Vocal Consort Berlin, which mostly sang offstage, hovered through ghostly passages.
The young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado led the Staatskapelle through a thoughtful performance, expertly blending timbre with the chorus when the music called for it. As life and death intermingled onstage, movement, sound, and gesture merged into an entity that was impossible to untangle.