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REIMANN: L’Invisible

CD Button Harnisch, Schlicht, Miller; Bronk, Blondelle, Severloh, Shaw, Wölfel; Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin, Runnicles. French text, German translation. OEHMS Classics OC 973 (2)

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Scary stories to tell in the dark: Schlicht and Gelmer Reuter in Berlin
© Bernd Uhlig
Recordings Invisible cover 1218

FOR MOST OF HIS CAREER, Aribert Reimann was best known for his 1978 opera King Lear, written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Since the success of his Medea in 2010, however, the eighty-two-year-old German composer has experienced a late-life resurgence. While his well-crafted adaptations of classic theater are beginning to resonate again with contemporary audiences, Reimann’s operatic approach remains a conservative vestige of German Literaturoper—the tense, psychological music dramas of Strauss, Berg and Zimmermann. In this latest premiere, recorded live last year at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Reimann’s Expressionistic style has taken a Gallic turn; for L’Invisible, his first French-language opera, he draws on the work of Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, whose Pelléas et Mélisande and Ariane et Barbe-bleue inspired earlier operas by Debussy and Dukas, respectively. The Invisible libretto strings together three significantly shortened plays from the 1890s, all of which employ the same cryptic Symbolist imagery as Pelléas—gloomy castles, flowing locks of hair, doors and windows, shadows and blindness. As the title implies, unseen figures are a common theme, their invisible presence portending death. The sightless Grandfather in “Intruder” senses the arrival of a ghostly visitor before his daughter dies from childbirth; a happy family in “Interior” sits at home, unaware of the messengers outside who bear news of their drowned child; and the despotic queen in “The Death of Tintagiles,” sequestered in her tower, orders the assassination of her grandson, the boy heir.

While all three stories advance ominously toward climactic tragedies, Reimann avoids obvious Hitchcockian buildups in his score. After all, the outcome is inevitable from the beginning of each sequence, with the ending of the third revealed right in its title. Instead of suspense, the composer generates ever-present unease, using an enigmatic system of recurring musical signs, such as the stabbing “death chord” and a crying-child theme. In the Symbolist spirit of Maeterlinck’s text, these motifs remain semantically ambiguous, only half-suggesting any dramatic significance in their resemblance to disturbing dungeon noises—incessant col legno knocking, woodwind shrieks, portamento string moans and violent contrapuntal passages that evoke hushed murmuring or the muffled thuds of a struggle. In his Debussyian attention to orchestral color, Reimann produces unique sound worlds for the individual acts, each of which is scored for a separate combination of instruments. But for all the spine-chilling timbres that Donald Runnicles draws from the Deutsche Oper orchestra, Reimann’s neurotic style doesn’t capture the elusive aura of Maeterlinck as well as Debussy’s subtle sensuality. L’Invisible doesn’t set itself apart from a century’s worth of brooding Modernist opera. 

The exception is Reimann’s elegant vocal writing, which successfully rehabilitates the lost art of coloratura. But rather than the sparkling runs of bel canto, the soloists spin out syncopated, thrashing lines suggestive of their characters—bass-baritone Stephen Bronk’s senile stuttering as theblind old man in “Intruder,” for instance, or mezzo Annika Schlicht’s obsessively oscillating intervals as the nervous sister figures in Acts II and III. Rachel Harnisch, who plays all three lead female roles, luxuriates in the long, lyrical melismas that Reimann has written to showcase her radiant upper register. At certain points, her soprano becomes ethereal, more like a theremin or ondes martenot than a human. A trio of countertenors (Tim Severloh, Matthew Shaw, Martin Wölfel) adds a medieval touch in their chantlike interludes, with texts from Maeterlinck’s 1889 collection Hothouses. In “Tintagiles,” they become a terrifying presence as the Queen’s henchwomen, chattering in shrill harpy voices as they plot to kidnap the sleeping prince.

This set includes the French libretto with a German translation; English editions of the unabridged Maeterlinck plays are available online. —Joe Cadagin



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