Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Lachenmann's "The Little Match Girl" wanders off

Photo by Julia Lynn Photography
Hans Christian Anderson’s story of “The Little Match Girl” has captured the imagination of a number of contemporary artists, including composer Helmut Lachenmann, whose operatic interpretation of the story was presented at Spoleto Festival USA on Thursday (June 2). Although Lachenmann finished the work in 1997, the production that I experienced at Memminger Auditorium marked the opera’s premiere in the USA. It was a challenging production both sonically and visually, but though it had much to offer, in the end, it seemed to go wide of the mark.

Much of “The Little Match Girl” production was very unique. Fortunately, the steeply raked seating gave patrons an excellent view of the stage area below and in front of them. A very large orchestra surrounded the audience on all sides above the stage area and slightly above the top row of the audience. But this was not ordinary orchestra. It was augmented by two pianos (both with strings weighted down) and an array of electronic instruments that were overseen by six recording engineers. The last part of the opera featured a long solo passage by Chen Bo on the shō, a Japanese reed instrument that sounded like an subdued harmonica. The entire assemblage was conducted by John Kennedy whose gestures were projected via many monitors to the orchestra members who were not seated in front of him. 
Photo by Julia Lynn Photography
Anderson’s story of “The Little Match Girl” is very short and simple. A poor, young girl goes out on a cold, winter night to sell matches. She doesn’t want to return home without selling some because her father will beat her. As she gets colder and colder, she lights the matches to stay warm, and their glow makes her think of a Christmas tree with its lights and her loving grandmother. Just before she dies she asks her grandmother to take her to heaven.

Co-directed by Mark Down and Phelim McDermott, the inventive puppetry of Blind Summit Theatre and Improbable used a fast-paced combination of cue cards and silhouetted figures to convey the story. But Lachenmann injected a letter from Gudrun Ensslin, who was childhood friend of the composer and a core member of the anarchistic Baader-Meinholf Gang, into the matter. It was a very 70s polemic in which Ensslin railed against “the system,” and it disturbed the emotional content of story. Not long afterwards, singer/composer Adam Klein, dressed sort of like Hans Christian Anderson, appeared on stage and began to reciting in German from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Arundel,” but he recited the words in a halting method that broke each word into its syllables – thus rendering da Vinci’s text almost unintelligible. That was the most frustrating part of the one hour and forty five minute work. At least thirty people in the audience left the performance, and I might have joined them, but I just decided to persevere.

Photo by Julia Lynn Photography
Musically speaking, the orchestra created a vast array of unusual sounds. The strings produced a variety of sonic notions by bowing behind the bridge or on the tailpiece of their instrument. They also rubbed pieces of Styrofoam together to suggest the sound of snowfall. Plunks and planks were generated by the pianists Stephen Drury and Renate Rohlfing. Two sopranos, Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta used tuning forks to find pitches that were all over the map. They also sang into the strings of the piano, and they slapped their cheeks, clicked their tongues, sang syllables rather than words, and created other extended effects that were, well, interesting. Their vocals were augmented by members of the Westminster Choir. No words were ever sung by any of the singers.

Photo by Julia Lynn Photography
The idea behind all of this, I think, was to put the audience inside the head of the little match girl. To get us to feel the coldness and aloneness that she felt. I didn’t get there, but I think that if the air conditioning had been turned up several notches, it might have done the trick. I have read that it takes more than one hearing of this piece to get the hang of Lachenmann’s opera. I would be willing to try it again, and if I ever do I will file another report. But after surviving the performance in Charleston, I did feel like have two really stiff martinis – to aid the recovery.

1 comment:

bob priest said...

Hahahaha, Helmut Lachenmann's music is no laughing matter.
I'm impressed that you were able to endure it - better you than me!
Please accept my condolences.