The composer’s synopsis is good and simple. ‘Morgen und Abend (Morning and Evening) is the struggle of Johannes into and out of life.’ And struggle he does in the latest opera by Georg Friedrich Haas, which opened at the Royal Opera on Friday 13 November. In unexpected ways the piece is naturalistic, as the witnessing from a detached perspective of the two moments in (and out of) life where identity is wandering in the borderlands, between being and not-being.
There are a lot of such binary opposites in the text which Jon Fosse has refashioned from his novel of the same name. Short sentences too. He did this for Haas in a chamber opera of 2008, Melencholia, which also forsakes action during a continuous hour and a half for contemplation (or is it navel-gazing?) of selfhood. Fosse is a Roman Catholic, converted Protestant. If you didn’t know that from his life, you might not gather it from his text, at least until Johannes leaves off the kind of oblique reminiscences that place him with other recent unreliable narrators such as Engleby and The Girl on the Train, and begins to spool through his memories like Krapp with his tapes. Even when his daughter opens the door to our revelation of his mortality, Johannes still has memories which become a Cartesian proof of existence. Maybe even of life after death.
Place, character, history, life, all blown away by the sands of time. It’s hard to make an opera when so much is consigned to the lumber-room of convention. Will Haas’s music make up the difference? Does he want it to? For the first half-hour it cocoons the embryonic Johannes in an amniotic bubble before swelling into prolonged dissonance, embodying impatience just as much as its characters and, dare I say it, the audience. The slow glissandi, the quarter-tones, quickening pulse to land on a glowing consonance like a spacecraft on an alien planet, the congealing of pitch into sonic wax: It’s the sound of Haas, or of Scelsi, Ligeti and Grisey adeptly mixed and poured into larger vessels. It was the sound of Haas in his breakthrough orchestral piece Hyperion (Spotify link), of In Vain (Vimeo link) which brought his name to an international audience, of Melancholia and the string-quartet-plus-song-cycle which Netia Jones coupled to create ATTHIS for the Royal Opera’s Linbury Theatre in March 2015 (my review for Amati is here). In all those works the sound was made special for its theme. Morgen und Abend, not so much.
Schoenberg remembered with appreciation how Busoni first insisted that music in opera must not express what is expressed by the action. (Busoni was too consumed by antipathy to admit that Wagner got there before him.) It’s a lesson Schoenberg had learnt well by the time he wrote the short psychodrama Die glückliche Hand. He and Haas both consign the chorus to offstage commentary and the action to memory, but where Schoenberg’s music gets inside the protagonist’s head as he, too, comes to terms with the love for a woman that is irrevocably past, Haas has crafted an iridescent accompaniment. Indeed Giuseppe di Iorio’s lighting does more than Haas’s music to illuminate the inner life of Johannes (Christoph Pohl), his friend Peter (Will Hartmann), his father (Klaus Maria Brandauer, whose speaking role deserves better microphone placement), wife (Helena Rasker) and daughter (Sarah Wegener, doubling as the midwife) as they move gravely around Richard Hudson’s set in subtle shades of grey.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera supplies all the colour under Michael Boder’s discreetly authoritative direction, tuning those shimmering chords and elusive quarter-tones with all the requisite care. Graham Vick’s direction resists any temptation to explain but shows what little there is to tell. As in Jones’s ATTHIS, decisive movement and fantasy is largely ceded to the back-projection of Fosse’s text, done here by 59 Productions. In the central role, Christoph Pohl performs heroics, untiring in his communicative urgency, but Wegener’s parts seemed the most sharply drawn, perhaps because she has more experience than anyone else on stage of working with Haas and moving his characters beyond archetypes. She sang the central role of Nadia in his last opera, Bluthaus (2011: listen here on YouTube). There is more expressive agency, and interaction between pit and stage, in five minutes of Bluthaus than the whole of Morgen und Abend. See it and be hypnotised, if hypnosis is what you want when taking your seat in an opera house. Towards the end, Johannes asks Peter, what’s it like where we’re going, and Peter patiently explains: where we’re going is not an anywhere because it is nowhere. ‘It is big and calm and trembling a little’. That’s the opera, whatever it is.