Under the title ‘Young Directors’, Elliott Carter’s 1999 opera What Next? and Leonard Bernstein’s 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti are currently performed as a double bill at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. The combination is a rare one: the music of Carter and Bernstein couldn’t be more different. In terms of thematics, however, the works show interesting similarities: both deal with strained human interaction and failing communication.
In order to provide young talent with a chance to develop their skills and experience on the main stage, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has decided to give two young directors the opportunity to present their first opera productions. The short operas What Next? and Trouble in Tahiti provide the two young directors Tibor Torell and Philipp Westerbarkei with the necessary interpretative and creative challenges.
Young directors I
Tibor Torell stages What Next?
In What Next?, six characters – three women, two men and a boy – find themselves together after what seems to have been some kind of accident. The characters try to reconstruct who they are, how they relate to each other and what has happened.
What complicates matters, however, is that these characters do not truly interact with each other and don’t even try to understand what the other is saying. In spite of the company they find themselves in, each and every character is completely isolated. During the entire work, no human communication or meaningful contact seems possible.
The music Carter composed for the opera reflects the manner in which the characters relate to each other and expresses incoherence. There are clashing rhythms and disharmony, which make for a chaotic musical experience that is as alienating to the audience as the action on stage.
Young director Tibor Torell sets the action of the opera in what resembles a crater and thereby renders it all the more mysterious where the six characters find themselves: have they survived a meteorite strike or do they dwell in a strange kind of afterflife?
In Torell’s production, the protagonists, apart from the boy Kid, start out as old and handicapped people; they are, both physically and mentally, confused and helpless. As they start to construct identities for themselves and consequently figure out that they can’t escape from their situation, Torell transforms the characters into infants, expressing their helplessness in a somewhat comical manner.
The acting and singing in the production is done very well, and the young conductor Jesse Wong knows his way around Carter’s score impressively.
In spite of Torell’s efforts, however, the opera doesn’t quite seem to work: the enduring lack of communication between the characters and the lack of anchor points seems to wear audiences out considerably: there is no single character to sympathise with or even to comprehend sufficiently. Not only are Carter’s characters unable to communicate meaningfully with each other, they also fail to communicate meaningfully with the audience.
Young directors II
Philipp Westbarkei stages Trouble in Tahiti
Just as in What Next?, a breakdown in communication constitutes a central theme in Bernstein’s early work Trouble in Tahiti. An important difference, however, is that Bernstein makes sure that the audience understands and sympathises with the two protagonists.
On the outside, married couple Dinah and Sam lead the perfect life in one of America’s comfortable suburbs. They have a son, a nice house and are surrounded by material luxuries and possessions. Behind this façade, the couple has lost the capacity to communicate and husband and wife have become alienated from each other.
Neither of them truly knows or understands how this situation has come to be. There is a constant tension between them and the smallest comment may trigger a painful fight at any moment. Their only peaceful coping mechanism is pretending that nothing is wrong at all and avoiding confrontation.
Their tense marital dialogues and longing and frustrated solos stand in stark contrast to the upbeat, cheerful singing of a Jazz-trio, consisting of a mezzo, a baritone and a tenor. This trio celebrates the happy luxurious life in suburbia that Sam and Dinah obviously do not experience.
Even though the opera is set in the fifties, stage director Philipp Westerbarkei endows the story of a problematic marriage with a certain timelessness by combining costumes and props from the fifties with more modern clothing and trappings such as a huge IKEA kitchen. Similarly, Dinah looks like an affluent twenty-first century desperate housewife with her modern white dress and her classy hairdo. The idea behind this seems clear: strained, problematic and deeply unsatisfying relationships still exist today just as they did in the fifties. Our coping mechanisms, such as movies or spending time on the computer, have only changed in terms of technology.
Under conductor Patrick Francis Chestnut, the Duisburger Philharmoniker produced a variety of musical colours; from tragic contemplativeness to big band swing.
Ramona Zaharia and Thomas Laske deserve special mention for the way in which they inhabited their roles completely, making the sad unbridgeable distance between the two painfully palpable, vocally as well as in terms of acting.
By providing two young directors with the chance to stage an opera entirely by themselves, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein provides a younger generation with the opportunity to show that they are brimming with talent; the resulting productions by Torell and Westerbarkei indeed show that the future of opera is something to look forward to.
Seen: 04-06-2016 (opening night)
Further performances: June 12 & 24, July 2 2016 (Duisburg only)
Review by: Laura Roling