The partition of a kingdom, jealousy leading two sisters to orchestrate the death of a third, a cold-hearted father, a conspiration of an illegitimate son against his brother, another father losing his eyesight, blinded by his foes – those are the ingredients of William Shakespeare’s play “King Lear”. Those are the building blocks of Aribert Reimann’s opera “Lear”, that I saw two days ago in Paris at the Opéra Garnier. I finally made it into that prestigious opera house and I saw and heard an utterly stunning performance.
Fascinated by the horror on the stage
As much as I love Shakespeare, the composer outperformed the playwriter. King Lear’s growing madness, the cruelty of his two daughters, the right of the strongest as the governing principle of society – Reimann’s music made me alternate between fascination and horror – or did I feel fascinated by the horror invading the stage? Like I feel fascinated by the surrealist finale of the movie “Apocalypse Now”?
Reimann hesitated when the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau suggested Shakespeare’s play as a subject for an opera in 1968. Guiseppe Verdi had flirted with the idea, he had even commissioned a libretto, but in the end, nothing came to it. Too big, too complex, too many characters, too many plots. Reimann consulted a librettist he trusted, Claus H. Henneberg, and both sat to work to create one of the most successful modern operas. In 1978, “Lear” celebrated its premiere at the Nationaltheater München. 27 different productions saw the light, the piece had been performed more than 200 times up to spring 2016.
Shakespeare condensed in two acts
Henneberg reduced Shakespeare’s five-act tragedy to two acts. Act 1: Lear divides his kingdom up between two of his three daughters. Cordelia, the third daughter who loves her father more than her sisters, is married to the Kind of France and loses her rights as an heir. Lear’s friend, the Earl of Kent, speaks out against this injustice and is banished by Lear. The two sisters try to get rid of Lear and banish him in turn.
Accompanied by a fool and the disguised and still loyal Earl of Kent, Lear errs through the highlands in the midst of a storm and sinks into a desperate folly. He meets the beggar Tom, actually Edgar, the legitimate son of the Earl of Gloster (Shakespeare’s Earl of Gloucester). Gloster had banished Edgar after his illegitimate son Edmund had convinced him that Edgar is plotting against him. Seeing Tom makes Lear realize that he has become a beggar himself through the many mistakes he has made. Gloster later joins the group and escorts Lear to Dover, where the French army and Cordelia have landed.
In act 2, Lear’s two evil daughters oppose anyone allied to her father like the Earl of Gloster. They blind him and recruit Edmund to raise an army against Lear. Lear seeks refuge with Cordelia and the French army, but the French are defeated, Cordelia and Lear taken prisoner. Cordelia is being strangled in prison, while one of the evil sisters is poisoning the other and killing herself thereafter. Edgar takes revenge upon his brother Edmund in a duel. The finale: Lear breaks down, his heart broken, his soul traumatized: You are men of stone, he laments and dies.
Violence and obscenity
The production by Calixto Bieito, resident artist at the Opéra Garnier in 2015/16 has had a strong impression on me. The sober, dark stage set, designed by Rebecca Ringst and made of rough black wooden planks, let the audience focus on the acting and the music. The setting, suggested through the costumes, is the 21st century world.
The part of Lear, especially in act 1, is physically demanding, and the Danish baritone Bo Skovhus brilliantly rendered Lear’s despotic and brutal character, for example when right at the beginning, he assaults Cordelia played and sung by the German soprano Annette Dasch. Lear reveals his other, more humane, side when he shares his few belongings with of the beggar Tom in an act of brotherly tenderness. Dasch’s great moment comes in the second act. The compassion of a loving daughter forgiving her disoriented father is one of the few instances were good is triumphing over evil.
Outstanding is how I would describe the soprano singer Erika Sunnegard in the role of Regan. The obscene hypocrisy of her when – while undressing – she first seduces her father and then throws him out of the house (act 1) or the murderous lust in her eyes when she strangles a servant with her nylon tights (act 2), illustrates the brutality that pervades the opera. Actually, both sisters confront the audience with their cruel vision of the world: Men are weak, men are to be used, abused, despised. But Gonoril and Regan are no better, as the rivalry, the violence in their relationship and the murder of Regan’s by Goneril shows. (Wo)man is wolf to (wo)man.
12-tone-themes for the faithful
Reimann associated different instruments to different characters and the emotions they express: the strings for Lear and his pain, the winds for the evil daughters and Edmund. Furthermore Reimann has composed two distinct 12-tone-themes for Cordelia, the faithful daughter, Edgar, the faithful son and the idea of sacrifice and forgiveness. And to top this, the composer uses pulsating sound clusters, canons and counterpoint to increase the dramatic aspects of the opera.
The composer, born in 1936 in Berlin, does not belong to any particular school. One of his mentors advised him to stay away from the festivals celebrating the Neue Musik and whatever composing style was en vogue. He was to find his own musical language and that is exactly what he did. I do not know what contemporary composers like Olivier Messiaen or Pierre Boulez thought of Reimann, but in 2011, Reimann told a German newspaper that he always had an eye on what other composers were writing and that he found he had little in common with them.
Highlights of atonality
Memorable musical moments I would like to single out:
Act 1.3 Die entartete Schwester (The degenerate sister): A monotone drum beat, an incantation by the two evil sisters, the deep-pitched woods contrasting by the high-pitched brass instruments – scary!
Act 1.6 Interlude I: drums, piping tones, towards the end a canon, desperate, sarcastic about old age. Wow!
Act 1.12 Blast, Winde, sprengt die Backen (Blow, wind, crack your cheeks): Lear errs through the night in his madness, sharp sound blocks by the strings, drum rolls make me shiver each time I hear them.
Act 1.14 Habe ich mein Leben retten können (Have I been able to save my life): sound clusters produced by the strings, the canvas for the recitative of Edgar, disguised as a beggar, moaning about his fate.
Act 2.1 Hier ist der Platz (Here is the place): Lear meets the disguised Edgar and realizes how deep he has sunk and the part is more of a declamatory nature with Klangflächen (sound surfaces)* as we know them from Ligeti’s compositions as a background.
Act 2.4 Edmund, wir fingen deine Vater ein (Edmund, we caught your father): The evil sisters are exstatic after the Earl of Gloster got caught. At the same time they learn that a French army has landed in Dover. They stab out the earl’s eyes amid hysteric laughter, shouts of panic, a percussion thunder and the shrieking of the brass. A horrible scene, masterfully set into music by Reimann.
Act 2.10 Mein lieber Vater! (My dear father!) Cordelia implores her father that she has forgiven him his erroneous judgement in a meditative, sad aria and Lear responds in a disillusioned song.
Act 2.13 Wein! (Cry!) Three brass fanfares open the final part of the opera: Lear is alone and mourns the many victims of jealousy, intrigue and greed before dying.
A word on dysfunction
Shakespeare piece creates a tragic atmosphere through the dialogues and the acting. The focus lies on the words, and today the message might have some difficulty to reach the audience because of the antiquated language. When I read the play, it didn’t really resonate with me. However, when I heard Reimann’s music even before I enjoyed the opera in Paris, the tragedy immediately unfolded before me. It really went under my skin and made me realize that the subject of the piece and the opera are timeless. Reimann has recast Shakepeare’s message in a modern way, making it accessible to today’s listeners.
Greedy, cruel children, jealousy, vanity, violence, intrigues, power games, mental disorder resulting from becoming an outcast – it happens every day in families all over the world. Every social worker knows such tragedies. News about dysfunctional political systems, the breakdown of an established order, anarchy and terror filling the void – the news speak of it every day. Dysfunction – has it become the rule?
“Lear” has been recorded by the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra in 1978 with Fischer-Dieskau as King Lear and Julia Varday as Cordelia.
© Charles Thibo