I should offer a caveat going into this description: I slept only four hours the previous two nights, and as a result I fell asleep for a little bit of Part I. But I got the gist.
This both is and isn’t an oratorio by Franz Schubert. Schubert did begin an oratorio called Lazarus, but he didn’t finish it. The score breaks off as Mary and Martha are mourning their dead brother Lazarus – it ends on the word “and” halfway through a phrase. So, what the collaborators on this project (more information here) did was to weave together some other bits of music by Schubert and – wait for it – Charles Ives to finish the story. The director of this interesting operation is Claus Guth. Like many things Guth related, it makes more sense than it sounds like it would if you merely hear it described.
Part one, where Lazarus dies, takes place in a “transit area” – a white abstract space reminiscent of an airport or train station. We see a wide white staircase in the center leading up to a white walkway. On the audience’s right is a customer service desk, likewise white, with three women in purple uniforms behind it. The people on the stage, including the three uniformed women, the soloists, and the general crowd of travelers milling around are the only color on the stage. Their ordinary clothes, bags, etc. are in stark contrast to the slightly eerie whiteness. Lazarus (Kurt Streit, whose voice sounds fuller in a concert hall than it does on recordings – and the less pleasant top part of his in voice is less in evidence in this work than in others) has an x-ray transparency with him, a sign of his impending death. His sisters Mary and Martha (Annette Dasch and Stephanie Houtzeel) also wander through, as does Nathaniel (Ladislav Elgr) who here is a priest who leaves business cards with Lazarus and, later, Simon (Florian Boesch). The production has the dreamlike quality that oratorios can have when staged – people wander in and out without the constraints that a drama written as a conventional play or libretto would impose.
The people in the “transit area” go about their travels, mostly up the stairs and off away on the walkway to the right or left. They freeze when the soloists are performing – the effect is to close the characters’ intense expressions of fear or grief or trepidation off from the crowd around them. The crowd isn’t other people, really; the crowd is something else. Lazarus dies.
In Part II his sisters mourn him. This section takes place in the same space but with the elements rearranged. The upper walkway is there, but the staircase is gone (its absence seems to track with Lazarus being dead). Most of the space is empty, but there is a curtained-off alcove stage left. (From my seat I couldn’t see what was on stage right.) We hear some beautifully impassioned singing from Boesch, Dasch and Houtzeel – and in the middle of Martha’s “why can’t I die too and follow my brother” aria Schubert’s score breaks off, leaving everyone frozen, Houzeel with her arms stretched forward grasping the air. And then everyone takes themselves out of the performance and they walk quietly off the stage. The mood and the lighting shift and there (musically) is Charles Ives’s “The unanswered question” and (visually) dancer Paul Lorenger as Lazarus. Lorenger also appeared in Guth’s Messiah; I begin to worry that he will spend his whole career typecast as a dead guy. The expression of whatever strange state Lazarus is in meshes perfectly with the Ives piece – not frightening, but different and other and inaccessible.
In this section (the Ives piece) we get emphasis on a pattern of barriers and circumvention of barriers. Members of the staff of whatever space this is set up a series of belt stanchions that create an area where a queue might wind back and forth, leading to the area stage left where the curtain has pulled back to reveal three customer service stations – except that the queue has no outlet. Lazarus moves painfully in and around the poles and belts and in the end escapes by simply retracting one of the belts, stepping out and replacing it behind him.
The last section of the work returns to the transit area for Lazarus’s return to life (Lazarus and his double move slowly down/up the stairs, with Streit as alive Lazarus ending up at the bottom and Lorenger facing away from the audience at the top. There is also a little crisis of faith for Simon, expressed via Schubert’s song “Der Wegweiser” performed very emphatically by Boesch. Once Lazarus is firmly once again in the land of the living, the work concludes with the Sanctus from Schubert’s mass in e-flat major.
The work is held together by its tone. It’s abstract, but not cold. The main characters feel with great warmth and intensity (and there is naturalistic acting/stage direction for human moments of grief, pain, religious crisis, etc.) but these emotions are set in abstract metaphorical area/s of transit/waiting and alongside non-naturalistic stage direction (for the dancer and often the men’s and women’s choruses too) that gives a sense of being closed off, elsewhere, expressing emotions that don’t have names. E.g. the women’s chorus walking backwards, slowly, across the upper walkway after the first Ives piece as they sing the a cappella chorus Schubert’s “Dreifach ist der Schritt der Zeit.”
This is a work about a series of unanswered or unanswerable questions, which is the kind of thing that when staged could easily end up as annoying metaphysical mush. I imagine it might be tempting to be hazy about the conceptual apparatus for something like this and to try to pass the haziness off as the result of asking questions with elusive answers. But Guth’s concept is not at all hazy. It’s quite precise and consistent, which gives what might seem a rather strange combination of things – an unfinished Schubert score, some Ives pieces and a little more Schubert – a definiteness that makes an effective container for the more hard-to-grasp things he wants to talk about.
One more thing about acoustics. Most of my opera-going experience has been at the Met, which is a huge auditorium; its size has both plusses and minuses. The Theater an der Wien is considerably smaller. The sound, both orchestra and singers, has a wonderful closeness and immediacy – I really enjoyed it.