, September 2010
As opera plots go, The Divine Circus should be more harrowing than most, based as it is on the schizoid fantasies of the Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli (1864–1930). Considered one of the first exponents of ‘outsider art’—or, as Jean Dubuffet described it, ‘art brut’—Wolfli produced a vast number of drawings and musical works while incarcerated in a Bern asylum. The Danish composer Per Nørgård was so impressed by an exhibition of Wolfli’s work in 1979 that he all but abandoned his early compositional style—a serial technique he called an ‘infinity series’—and adopted the freer, less didactic idiom we hear in The Divine Circus. The music begins most powerfully, with a terrifying ten-minute prologue for assorted drums and percussion. The visceral crescendi and cross-rhythms are a display of raw energy and a flirtation with chaos; they’re also a harbinger of the delusions, or voices, that haunt the protagonist throughout the opera. Buried in all that thrilling noise are exotic Balinese instruments that Nørgård—who spent time in Indonesia in the 1970s—had made to his own specifications. In a work full of delusions and disasters these sometimes disembodied sounds seem entirely apt, the composer mixing instruments and varying rhythms and timbres to great effect. And all from just six percussionists, too.
In other hands the prefatory texts—chosen by Nørgård—might seem portentous, but here they help define the limits and paradoxes of Wolfli’s conflicted universe. Alto Fabienne Jost sings the words to Ted Hughes’ A Kill, the soprano ‘How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night’ from Romeo and Juliet, and the three baritones Nietzsche’s’ ‘Gondola Song’. Musical accompaniment is skeletal at best, the vocal style a form of sprechgesang which, in soprano Andrea Stadel’s case, is enhanced by the loveliest, highest and purest of vocal lines. It’s a mesmerising display and an inspired response to Romeo’s words, ‘Like softest music to attending ears!’
Indeed, The Divine Circus has many such epiphanies, where words and music seem to twine and fuse. There’s evanescent loveliness too, in the Venetian night, a romantic vision marred ever so slightly by noises on-stage. That’s inevitable in live recordings, but it’s never too intrusive. As for the audience, you wouldn’t know there was one until the burst of applause at the end of Act II. Most impressive, though, are the details and staggering dynamics of Dacapo’s recording, which somehow combines the precision and polish of a studio with the tension and risk-taking of a live, staged performance. The balance between singers and musicians is near ideal, the gorgeous shiver-up-the-spine timbres of the Balinese instruments captured with the utmost fidelity and impact.
Act I is divided into seven episodes, Act II into five. And in a practice familiar from Baroque oratorio onward, singers are assigned various parts. The alto and soprano divide the female roles among them, while Hubert Wild sings the parts of both Wolfli and his most violent alter ego, the Negro. Those of Doufi—the young Wolfli—and his other delusional characters are taken by the remaining baritones. In ‘Paeans with Fall’ worlds collide, bliss and beauty are thrust up against the darkly sexual Vögelis—‘Mistress, squat! Come, suck, duck’—while language is bent and broken in unusual and highly musical ways. Reality, like the will-o’-the-wisp, is hard to pin down, but there’s a strong, unifying narrative here, driven by music—and a libretto—of great originality and flair. Indeed, one senses a powerful theatrical event unfolding, and it’s testament to the skills of conductor Dorian Keilhack and Dacapo’s audio team that even without the visuals—some of which can be seen on the Stadttheater Bern’s website—this recording bites hard and never lets go.
There’s no escaping Wolfli’s criminal past, which involved sexually molesting young girls, Doufi is seen playing ‘doctors and nurses’ with Bianca in Part II: The Automatic Dancing Disc. In this surreal setting Wolfli splits into his two better selves—St. Adolf I and II—imminent chaos represented by the shadowy, scat-singing Vögelis. Nørgård provides music of surpassing strangeness for these fractured scenes, including the sounds of an electronically amplified cello. In such a tilted universe it’s no wonder that Wolfli seems to fall over so much, and catastrophe is never far away. A balloon and its pilot plunge to earth in Part III: The Air Captain’s Fall (And House Doctor’s Consolation), but then this really is a fallen world, where saints morph into sinners and back again. Nowhere is this more graphically illustrated than in Part IV, where the lascivious Lidia Wildermuth—sung with unerring accuracy and thrilling range by Andrea Stadel—is transformed into the Goddess Serena.
Hubert Wild’s vocal abilities aren’t so taxed—his delivery is closer to speech than singing much of the time—but he’s splendid throughout. In parts that could so easily become histrionic—there are shrieks, shouts and some maniacal laughter—neither he nor the rest of the cast let their parts run away with them. There really is a rigour and focus to this performance that never stretches the narrative thread to breaking point, the zig-zag vocal lines and ensemble singing judiciously done as well. And for a work that revolves around madness and depravity—the latter reflected in Part V, where Wolfli morphs into the Negro, a sexual predator who then attempts to rape Margritt—any sense of shock or revulsion is tempered by the hallucinatory nature of the plot. True, the language of this scene is pretty explicit—‘Well, any fucking here?’—but without actually seeing this production it’s difficult to know whether that perception would be challenged by what’s happening on stage.
Disc one ends with the first half of Part VI: Catastrophe with Fall (The Clock Strikes Twelve), in which Wolfli (as the Negro) is arrested and roughed up—cue violent drumming—and Margritt is consoled, even by Wolfli’s more saintly selves. I suppose one could see all this in cod Freudian terms, the mother as whore and virgin, the Negro as the stereotypical embodiment of dark, rapacious sex, but really there’s little time to speculate as Nørgård brings the scene to a close with music of primal intensity and some fine ensemble singing. But then, in striking contrast, we hear the soothing shimmer of gongs, played as the Negro is boarded up in his cell. It’s one of many frisson-inducing touches that make this such an engrossing work.
Remarkably, concealed in all this mayhem is a genuine sense of pathos; Wolfli, in solitary confinement, now sings most movingly of his loneliness and despair in ‘God is my lodestar, but he is far away’. There is something almost Faustian about his predicament—‘So! Now I really do hear the final hour being struck’—but then he launches into a frenzy of fricatives, terrified by his circling demons. In another of those inspired moments the word ‘cuckoo’ is mimicked musically, sounding for all the world like the manic ticking of a giant clock. As observers at the asylum noted, Wolfli’s psychotic episodes alternated with periods of relative calm, during which—as here—he returned to his writing and drawing. It’s a most poignant transformation, Wild shading and projecting Wolfli’s different moods and personalities with great skill.
As this is a hybrid SACD—and one of lamentably few operas so recorded—85 minutes of music has had to be split over two discs; even though this break occurs within Part VI it’s not too distracting. And it’s a measure of the topsy-turvy nature of this piece that Resurrection (Part VII) precedes Creation (Part VIII). Intriguingly, the latter includes an ‘Ant Fugue’, in which the Vögelis and Hoptiquaxes are directed to depict the Creation at ‘ant level’. Now I really missed not being able to see how that was done—a DVD or Blu-ray of this production would be most welcome—although Nørgård’s music is as inventive as ever. The interaction between amplified cello and the silvery percussion—and later the synthesiser—produces some very strange sonorities indeed, punctuating the ensemble singing most effectively.
The surrealistic elements of this opera are as clever as they are diverting, the ‘star’ and ‘homeless family’ of Part VIII a witty take on the nativity of Christ. Here the sister morphs into Santa Maria, who then proceeds to go into labour. The bald facts of this scene don’t do justice to Nørgård’s dramatic and musical sleight of hand, the seamless weaving together of multiple personalities and events. And in Part IX the tram ride is accompanied by loud click-clacks from the band, Wolfli’s ‘fall’—another psychotic episode—characterised by the usual stream of non sequiturs. Curiously, these outbursts have a musical quality of their own, adding to the work’s collage of sound. But in Part X: Is There an Accident Doctor in the House? the amplified cello underpins the mix of spoken dialogue and ensemble singing, the scene’s burlesque elements heightened by comical drum rolls and vocal glissandi.
In Part XI: The King’s Comment, Wolfli is again overwhelmed by the Babel of voices around him, responding with an anguished speech, nearly all of it delivered without accompaniment; he then calms himself by composing a letter to his brother. It’s a touching episode that reminds us of the human frailties behind the hallucinations and general high jinks. It all segues neatly into Part XII: Final Hallelujah Chorus, based on a rhythmic, hip-swaying little tune by Wolfli himself. Our exhausted protagonist collapses for the last time—no resurrection, reanimation or reinvention here—the cast dancing around Wolfli’s still form before disappearing into the wings, their voices fading most atmospherically into silence. All very understated, yet also very moving; in fact, a good metaphor for this opera as a whole.
Really, any written review of this eventful, multi-layered work hardly does it justice. Indeed, Nørgård has an alchemist’s touch, the retorts of his musical imagination filled with bright metals and strange effusions. And it’s that ever-changing interaction of sounds and voices, of rhythms and textures, that makes this such a grateful and absorbing piece. The small cast and band seem immersed in this score and acquit themselves very well indeed. Factor in Dacapo’s wonderfully tactile, three-dimensional recording and interesting liner-notes and you have a winning set.
So, a refreshing modern opera, albeit without the mandatory acid bath, full of warmth, whimsy and weirdness. I implore you, try it.