Aribert Reimann’s Lear is a pretty good example of how to create a thoroughly modern opera within a thoroughly traditional framework. It’s a classic story of course. Here librettist Claus Henneberg has taken the classic German translationof the Shakespeare play and condensed it in a highly intelligent fashion; retaining all the emotional drama while sacrificing some fairly peripheral narrative. Reimann’s score is modern though not strictly twelve tone. He creates a distinct musical voice for each character; speech/Sprechstimme for the Fool, weird coloratura for General etc. This is reinforced by many of the characters having a tone row that serves as a sort of leitmotiv. Atonality and quarter tones are used for varying effects from the violence of the Blasted Heath scene; apparently inspired by the composer’s experience, as a nine year old, of the bombing of Potsdam, to the shimmering, ethereal quarter tones of Lear’s final monologue. For anyone with even a vague tolerance for “modern” music it’s a fascinating listen.
It’s rather odd that it’s taken more than 35 years for a major stage work by a major composer to get a video recording but that’s the case. With the 1978 premiere having been “hijacked” from Hamburg by Munich it’s perhaps fitting that the recording should be made in the work’s intended birthplace. Anyway, the 2014 Hamburg production is directed by Karoline Gruber and conducted by Intendantin Simone Young; herself no stranger to the Shakespeare play. It gets an intelligent modern staging. Sets are spare with use of revolving platform to keep the action moving. There are flats at weird angles, often with text on them. Costumes are modernist; trousers, shirts and jackboots for the most part. The simplicity intensifies the drama. The main directorial take is that lear is not an old man. Driven by, perhaps, ego rather than exhaustion to divide his realm his tragedy seems all the more self inflicted. Gruber doesn’t shy away from the essential violence of the piece anymore than the composer. This is tough to watch in places though never gratuitous.
The role of Lear is, of course, crucial. It was created for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (there are odd black and white video clips of him in the role, in the original Ponnelle production, around) and here it’s played by Bo Skovhus. I’ve seen enough of Skovhus to know that, despite not having the prettiest baritone voice, he is one of the great singing actors of our day and here he is immense. His facial expressions and body language alone are worth the price of the disk. The rest of the cast is more than adequate too with special mentions for Siobhan Stagg’s touching Cordelia, the deeply unpleasant sisters sung by Katja Pieweck and Hellen Kwon and the beautiful, weird, counter tenor singing of Andrew Watts as Edgar. The last’s Mad Tom scene is, together with Lear’s final monologue, one of the musical highlights of the piece. The (more or less) speaking role of the Fool is played brilliantly by Erwin Leder who you might have seen as the Chief Mechanic in Das Boot. Ms. Young gets a fantastic performance out of the Philharmoniker Hamburg; managing to get extreme clarity out of what could, in lesser hands, become cacophony.
The one aspect of this disk I am less than thrilled by is the video direction of Marcus Richardt. While I think his shot choice is generally pretty good he does go to the special effects box rather too often which tends to undermine the stark simplicity of what’s happening on stage. Still, it’s not hard to ignore. On Blu-ray there’s a true HD picture and a vivid DTS-HD sound track. The disk also contains about twenty minutes of interviews with Young and the composer which are well worth watching. The booklet has a useful essay, track listing and synopsis. Subtitles are German and English. The latter using the original Shakespeare.