October 1, 2008
Komische Oper Berlin

Death in Modern Times

Mozart's Requiem interwoven with a play at the Komische Oper


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Armin Petras und Jan Kauenhowen
In der Schlangengrube. Sechs Lebenslinien


Komische Oper Berlin
Musical Director: Markus Poschner
Director: Sebastian Baumgarten
Set: Michael Graessner
Costumes: Tabea Braun
Dramaturgy: Ingo Gerlach
Choruses: Robert Heimann
Lighting: Franck Evin
Video: Stefan Bischoff
ELectronic Sounds: Ingo Günther

Soprano: Brigitte Geller
Alto: Elisabeth Starzinger
Tenor: Peter Lodahl
Bass: Dimitry Ivashchenko
Actor 1: Irm Hermann
Actor 2: Herbert Fritsch
Actor 3: Hendrik Arnst
Actor 4: Kathrin Angerer

Chorus and Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Death in Modern Times

Mozart's Requiem interwoven with a play at the Komische Oper

Von Nancy Chapple / Fotos: Monika Ritterhaus

Requiem: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

If you're looking for a transformation of Mozart's sublime Requiem into a convincing theatrical experience, you're in the wrong place. Breathtaking musical excitement is also in short supply. But the Komische Oper could be a good address this season for a thought-provoking meditation about how death is handled and perceived in modern times.

The first musical moment induces shivers down our spines: for the Introitus, the chorus is placed in the first three rows of the opera house. They start to sing in darkness, facing us. The question "why a theatrical version of the Requiem?" is answered with great immediacy: to experience moments impossible in a concert or church setting. The listening companion to my right would have wished more of this emotional immediacy and urgency, more respect for the great musical work.

But the notorious Mozart-loather to my left turned to me when it was over and said, "I really liked it." He was taken with the interwoven play In der Schlangengrube: Sechs Lebenslinien (In the Snake Pit: Six Lifelines), true stories recounted by and about the dying, gathered by Armin Petras and Jan Kauenhowen in Berlin hospices. And they did touch on many pertinent themes about how we now deal with death and the dying — with sterile clinical gloves, from a distance, leaving the transition "to the other side" in the hands of professionals — in fact, relegating much of death's traditional religious and spiritual significance to strangers: doctors, nurses, undertakers, pastors, orators.

Requiem: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

We meet Anita, who is avoiding death as she has avoided life — by fantasizing herself into a central place in history. We encounter Manfred, dying in a hospice bed, who recounts Mozart's last days as he composed the Requiem. When he dies, three eager self-obsessed helpers quickly assemble an Ikea-like cardboard coffin and Manfred disappears, leaving them to their silliness. Packing boxes to install Mother in a rest home, an image of painted china handed down over generations is projected onto the wall and used to show how one attaches importance to symbols within a family that can serve as a source of long-seated ill-will. In the episode entitled Düsseldorf, a doctor wraps up his life — a minor career, a house smaller than his doctor father's — and sums up how meaningless the materialism of his life feels in the face of death.

So it's not the themes that feel irrelevant, it's how they are realized. Overall, so many images, details, costumes felt out of place. Death appears to Anita as an action figure in a comic book-style red and purple cape. The episode Der Übertritt — the transfer from life to death — is played by two yelling figures in fake-y skeleton suits and shiny neon wigs. In Dies Irae, the chorus played slithery, worm-like zombies. All of it simply annoying.

Requiem: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

I'm usually a friend of collage, of pastiche — it's how we think in modern times, the old and new, the banal superimposed on the sublime. But it doesn't quite work here. The funny parts are not funny, nor the scary ones scary. I'm turned off by the tongue-in-cheek post-modern frame of mind: "Normally, the following would be considered funny. And we know that." Or: "This makes up part of the standard vocabulary of clichés in scary movies. But it's hardly capable of scaring us any longer." The wrong notes were at both auditory and visual levels: yelling and the use of cowbells were just as infuriating as the comic book costumes and the simpering Konstanze Mozart imitator.

Most of the scenes — be it the segments of the Requiem, be it the embedded play — were acted out with the entire chorus on the stage, so that there was much more action on the stage than one could make sense of. From my right: "What were all those people doing — why couldn't their actions be coordinated in a way that made sense?"

The music seemed to play the most minor role here. So when something wonderful emerged — like the interplay between major and minor in Domine Jesu — one breathed a deep sense of relief. Ah, that's why we're here!

The most convincing acting of the evening came from Herbert Fritsch — exaggerated, almost ridiculous, but involving in his every movement. The audience applauded politely, and there was no booing. Most of it was for the chorus and the conductor.

It is house policy at the Komische Oper to deploy supertitles. The translated Latin texts of the Requiem and the scene descriptions of the interwoven play were projected left and right of the stage action. But what if your German's not that fluent? Overall, the evening is so text-heavy that you'll feel a bit left out if that's the case.

Perhaps the mixture of the banal and the sublime can help us discuss death in modern times. The evening was certainly unsettling.