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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Opera Review: Twisting, Turning Through the Never

Lincoln Center Festival presents Michaels Reise um die Erde.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Archangel Michael (trumpeter Marco Blaauw) solos over New York in Michaels Reise um die Erde.
Image © 2013 La Fura dels Baus.
It was Saturday night, and  Avery Fisher Hall was in darkness, apart from a black-light glow illuminating a curtain concealing the massive stage. This was the setting for the North American premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Michaels Reise um die Erde ("Michael's Journey Around the World.") This was the third and final performance of the work (itself a component of Stockhausen's week-long mega-opera Licht) at this year's Lincoln Center Festival. The music was by Ensemble musikFabrik, and the staging by Carlus Padrissa from Catalan theater group La Fura dels Baus.

The Licht ("Light") project occupied Stockhausen from 1977 to 2003. It incorporates music, dance, voices and electronics to illuminate the endless cosmic struggle between three primal forces: Michael the Archangel, Lucifer, the Enemy, and Eve, the eternal Feminine. Each of these figures is represented by a musical theme ("formula") and a different instrument or instrumental group. Those thees

This performance combined aerial ballet, virtuoso trumpet and wind playing and digital projections that accentuated and explained the complex musical ideas. The (aptly-named) trumpeter Marco Blaauw was the titular Michael, playing long, complicated melodic lines while mounted securely to one end of a flying, spinning pantograph. His Journey girdled the globe, starting from the composer's home base of Cologne and visiting New York (at the moment of the destruction of the World Trade Center, Japan, Bali, and Africa, a Sahara desert of skulls from which the thematic material emerged reborn.

Much of this action took place in the air, as Michael flew through the ether. His music is operatic without any sung words (there are two spoken lines) filled with long, voice-like lines for the solo trumpet, interrupted by silences and breathy aspirations through the instrument. As he flew above the stage, Michael touched down in digital representations of various cities and locations. These were projected on a circular screen (very Pink Floyd, that!) shaped like a satellite dish. Projections on the outer scrim lent depth to the visual images, and power to the orchestral climaxes.

Despite this composer's reputation for controversy, the fact remains: Stockhausen's music is not as intimidating as his overwhelming concept would suggest.  The soloist interacted with other orchestral musicians much as one would in a single-movement trumpet concerto. Whether playing a long jazzy duet with a double bassist, and being repeatedly harassed by two Swallows, (clown-figures playing clarinet and basset horn) the melodic threads continue to evolve, develop and engulf the listener through speakers placed high in the auditorium. Eventually two trombone playing "hitmen" (representing the antagonist Lucifer) whack the two Swallows--which is at once a murder and a moment of comic relief.

This Journey was performed as a stand-alone work. But it is also the second act of a large opera, Donnerstag aus Licht ("Thursday from Light"). Donnerstag is one of seven works (one for each day of the week) that comprise Licht. The complete work is 29 hours in length. While all seven components of Licht have been staged, they have yet to be mounted as a complete cycle by a single company.

At the work's climax, Michael met Eve. She was represented by a basset horn (a kind of alto clarinet) played by soloist Nicola Jürgensen. The work ended with a long and ecstatic duet between these two archetypes as they flew together through the stars, their instruments twining, twinning and ending in an ecstatic cosmic journey. Following the final notes, the response of the audience was equally rapt.

The performance of Licht is all about ceremony and rite, and the presentation by Lincoln Center Festival reinforced the work's mystic aspects. As the audience exited, they were greeted by five trumpeters mounted on the tiers of Avery Fisher Hall. These soloists played the "Michael" formula one last time, a final benediction before exiting the space of Stockhausen's imagination and returning to the real world outside.
Experience Michaels Reise um die Erde on YouTube in a performance from Cologne.

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