I came across Hans Thomalla’s 2019 opera Dark Spring when the record label Oehms gave me access to a pre-release of the CD version which is to be released in a couple of days time. Listening to a couple of scenes and looking at the photos in the accompanying booklet suggested to me that this was really an opera I needed to see to fully appreciate and, indeed, it turns out that there’s a lot going on that isn’t explicit in the libretto. Fortunately, as it turns out, there’s a full video recording on Vimeo. It’s not the greatest technical quality of all time but it is drawn from the same live performances at the work in Mannheim in the fall of last year as the CDs. The CDs are excellent high quality (48kHz, 24 bit) CD quality. So I think there’s a case for tracking down the video and the CD recording.
It’s a really interesting piece. It’s is apparently based on Frank Wedekind’s play Frühlings Erwarken. This seems a bit surprising as the opera is relentlessly modern in the way it treats it’s subject matter. The opera is a sort of “song opera” without really having a plot. The characters are four teenagers completing secondary school who besides confronting the usual life issues one confronts at that age; sex, why am I here?, sex, what is it all for anyway?, sex, drugs, sex, they are also in a culture where “final exams” are the ultimate arbiter of one’s fate and can lead to ecstasy or suicidal despair. This may be easier to relate to for Europeans than North Americans.
So the opera plays out in eleven scenes spread over about an hour and a half with most of the music consisting of songs (in English) with lyrics by Joshua Clover or instrumental interludes. Both vocal and instrumental music combines American popular song influences with minimalism and some fairly abrasive atonalism. It’s a fascinating mix of textures and soundscapes. It’s a fascinating mix of American and German influences which isn’t so surprising when one sees that Thomalla is a German trained composer teaching at Northwestern.
The visuals do turn out to be important as there are themes that are explored in Thomalla’s stage directions and Barbora Horáková Joly’s direction, Annemarie Bulla’s designs and Sergio Verde’s videos that just don’t really get mentioned in the text of the songs. So while issues of sexual consent and BDSM get plenty of “song time”, Moritz’ explorations in cross-dressing are purely visual as are Ilse’s flirtings with cocaine and there are visual clues that these young people are not as far removed from childhood as they think. The video, some of which is prerecorded and some of which is magnified versions of what’s going on on stage are really important. They allow characters to be brought closer together than the COVID constrained staging allows and, as you can imagine, staging a sex scene with physical distancing is tricky.
The performances, from four young singers, are really good. They form two couples. Wendla (mezzo-soprano Shachar Lavi) is a sort of repressed sexual experimentalist paired off with the fairly unenthusiastic and suicidal Melchior (tenor Christopher Diffey) while manic party girl Ilse (contralto Anna Hybiner) is paired off with the cross-dressing and probably gay Moritz (countertenor Magid El-Bushra). The interactions are really intense especially between Melchior and Wendla. It’s impressive that the sexual tension is maintained despite the distancing requirements. The instrumental ensemble is really good too. It combines a small number of “classical” instruments with electric guitar and drum kit. It’s all really well co-ordinated by conductor Alan Pierson.
This opera is both compelling and at times quite hard to watch. It’s musically inventive, true to the themes it explores, visually arresting and extremely well performed. The audio version comes in physical CD format or various digital formats and there’s a really comprehensive booklet with a complete libretto and very useful notes. The video version is not so technically accomplished but you can find Act 1 here and Act 2 here.