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Scenic world premiere Gurre-Lieder is triumph for Pierre Audi and Marc Albrecht

More than a century we had to wait, but at last Arnold Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder also to be seen. Surprisingly, it is not. Reportedly, the composer was against it, as it concerns a cantata. However, director Pierre Audi and conductor Marc Albrecht show very convincingly with this scenic world premiere that Gurre-Lieder hid an opera that yearned for the stage light.

And what an opera! All too often Gurre-Lieder wrongly portrayed as a youthful work or as a last convulsion of late-Romanticism, with its megalomaniacal choral and orchestral scoring. For the first performance in Vienna in 1913, 'the sumptuous sound bed' required more than 700 men; Amsterdam makes do with 'only' 250.

And so then it can be loud. Deafeningly loud.

But that huge orchestral line-up remarkably often sounds very intimate and is mainly employed to realise previously rarely heard timbres. And while certainly the first movement does resemble Wagner's Tristan und Isolde should bring to mind, the orchestration is mainly influenced by Mahler and it falters, chafes. Harmony is achieved only with the greatest difficulty, but under the surface madness lurks.

Audi shows this madness from the start, by having the jester, who actually only has a small role in the third part, comment silently from the start. He does, however, constantly have an ominous sun with him. The narrator, in this production divinely interpreted by a woman, here the renowned actress Sunnyi Melles, is also prominent throughout the performance.

Audi pushes us so much. Is the Liebesnacht of King Waldemar and Tove real? Isn't everything mostly in Waldemar's head? After all, when the jester finally sings, it turns out that Tove has been dead for years. And neither is Tove's castle idyllic; it is rather a macabre prison from which she cannot escape.

So we don't get to see her death, but during the song of the wood pigeon (brilliantly sung by Anna Larsson) it is very evocatively represented by two rotating cubes representing rooms, one virginal white, the other full of blood splashes.

The transition to the nightmarish next part is breathtaking. Through video projections, the pillars and walls of the castle seem to disintegrate, like in a bad lsd trip.

And that's just the beginning.

What follows is an army of dead soldiers - all credit to the choir of the National Opera, augmented by the Kammerchor des ChorForum Essen - a huge rotten fish and dragging the corpses of horses. The God-fearing farmer here is a boozer at the Wet Horse Inn - War Horse for adults, so to speak.

The link to Schoenberg's monodrama Erwartung, staged by Audi back in 1995, is obvious, but here the forest is populated by a hundred men. No, this Gurre-Lieder offers not a pleasantly reassuring romantic worldview, but the nightmare of World War I that was about to break out in 1913.

And it doesn't stop here.

After the narrator ushers in the final scene with the warning that the approaching "wild chase of the solar wind is getting much worse than ever before", the overwhelming final chorus erupts Seht die Sonne the bomb. Not only figuratively, because the already immense choir has now been expanded to include a female choir, all dressed in white, but their inky black glasses are reminiscent of the glasses handed out to test subjects and soldiers at the time of the first atomic tests - still during Schoenberg's lifetime. And at the same time, we cannot help but also think of the bomb Schoenberg put under all music after the Gurre-Lieder.

'This work is the key to my entire development,' the composer wrote to his publisher in 1912. One hundred and two years later in Amsterdam, you can hear and see why, in all its Strahlenlocken splendour.


Henri Drost

Henri Drost (1970) studied Dutch and American Studies in Utrecht. Sold CDs and books for years, then became a communications consultant. Writes for among others GPD magazines, Metro, LOS!, De Roskam, 8weekly, Mania, hetiskoers and Cultureel Persbureau/De Dodo about everything, but if possible about music (theatre) and sports. Other specialisms: figures, the United States and healthcare. Listens to Waits and Webern, Wagner and Dylan and pretty much everything in between.View Author posts

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