Philosophical Intonations, From Two Sides

HAMBURG, Germany — Opera and philosophy make strange bedfellows. The larger-than-life theatricality and emotionalism of Puccini and Verdi do not exactly lend themselves to clarifying complex, precise ideas.

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A.J. Goldmann
, New York Times

HAMBURG, Germany — Opera and philosophy make strange bedfellows. The larger-than-life theatricality and emotionalism of Puccini and Verdi do not exactly lend themselves to clarifying complex, precise ideas.

Yet by coincidence, not one but two new music dramas about major 20th-century thinkers — two German-Jewish intellectuals who fled the Nazis — have their premieres in Germany this season. Few would have predicted that Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt would be joining the ranks of Don Giovanni and Carmen.

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” Benjamin wrote in 1940, the year he killed himself in the Spanish border town of Portbou. Peter Ruzicka’s powerful third opera, “Benjamin,” written for the Hamburg State Opera, where it ran through June 16, takes us through the various stations of the philosopher’s exile in 90 feverish minutes. From beginning to end, it feels like the music of cataclysm: anguished, outraged, hellishly surreal.

Ruzicka, a former artistic director in Hamburg, is one of a handful of living opera composers who can write music this ambitious and affecting. (Jörg Widmann, Wolfgang Rihm, Thomas Adès and George Benjamin come to mind among the Europeans.)

The nonlinear, associative libretto by Yona Kim — who also directed the gripping staging, set in what seems to be a decaying 19th-century salon — swerves from Berlin to Moscow and from Paris to Riga. Its seven scenes form a hallucinatory series of episodes from Benjamin’s life.

He plays chess and talks Marxism with Bertolt Brecht (the imperious tenor Andreas Conrad), quarrels over Zionism with the kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem (the insistent bass Tigran Martirossian) and dreams of proletarian children’s theater with his Latvian mistress, Asja Lacis (the charged coloratura soprano Lini Gong). Benjamin himself is a hounded, haunted figure, sung with panic by the baritone Dietrich Henschel. (Ruzicka bifurcates Benjamin’s personality by adding a spoken double, played by the actor Günter Schaupp.)

Written for a large orchestra, offstage musicians, a full chorus and a children’s chorus, “Benjamin” is a major undertaking. With the composer in the pit, the score hissed and crackled with furious energy. Ruzicka’s musical language is heterogeneous and fluid — by turns lyrical, dissonant, shrill and sparse. At times the jagged vocal lines seem lacerated by furiously driven strings; at others, soft winds and strings support sustained notes by the soloists or chorus.

The opera’s centerpiece is an infernal chorus adapted from Ruzicka’s 2001 opera about Paul Celan, the Eastern European Jew and Holocaust survivor who is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest German-language poets. The piercing cries of “Jerusalem!” seem to express both a longing for escape and the messianic tendencies in Benjamin’s unorthodox thought. The work will be performed next season in Heidelberg, Germany: An opera this robust and impressive deserves to be seen widely.

Hannah Arendt has a cameo in Hamburg, singing a Baudelaire setting to Benjamin as he takes his life, but she’s the leading lady in the picturesque Bavarian city of Regensburg, where the Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff’s new opera, “Die Banalität der Liebe” (“The Banality of Love”) dramatizes the famous — or infamous — romance between Arendt, the great political theorist, and Martin Heidegger, the towering German philosopher and member of the Nazi Party.

Unlike Ruzicka, Milch-Sheriff opts for a straightforward narrative, and music to match. At various points, the music is lush, ironic and quotation-heavy; there’s quite a bit of Wagner, Mahler and even Bernstein in the score. But the lack of a unifying harmonic or melodic language is only part of what makes this moderately entertaining, frequently infuriating two-hour work a bumpy ride.

One of Milch-Sheriff’s odder inspirations is making the young Heidegger a lyric tenor (the robust Angelo Pollak). We meet him, along with Arendt (sung as a young woman with virginal purity by Anna Pisareva and in middle age by Vera Semieniuk, a toughened mezzo), in 1924, during a philosophy lecture in Marburg.

In a witty classroom scene, Milch-Sheriff sets a passage from Heidegger’s “Being and Time” to music that is a parody of a serenade, complete with mandolin accompaniment. The scene is played primarily for laughs — Heidegger’s language is notoriously complex — and there isn’t much discussion of his philosophy in what follows. He comes across less as a thinker than as a Svengali who seduces and humiliates his young Jewish pupil. Their onstage romance is full of kinky, S&M touches.

The libretto by Savyon Liebrecht, based on her play, leaps fluidly from the 1920s to the 1970s and from Germany to Israel and America. In 1933, when the Nazis appoint Heidegger as rector of Freiburg University, Milch-Sheriff replaces the rakish tenor with a Mephistophelean baritone (Adam Kruzel).

Itay Tiran’s production does a fine job handling the frequent geographical and temporal displacements. While his images are often striking, the production has its excesses. During Heidegger’s Nazi-extolling inaugural address in Freiburg, yellow stars of David rain down on the audience, and the Adolf Eichmann trial scene is a piece of kitsch worthy of Ken Russell.

Gideon Hausner, the Israeli chief prosecutor, has a star of David emblazoned on his forehead, while his hands are outstretched in the manner of the Jewish priestly blessing (not unlike the Vulcan salute, which it inspired). He is a bloodsucking caricature straight out of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Milch-Sheriff scores the scene with organ, making the trial seem like an auto-da-fé. Meanwhile, it is Arendt, not Eichmann, who occupies the famous glass box, answering to the claim that she “defended” Eichmann out of love for Heidegger.

The opera stops short of accusing Arendt, who coined the controversial phrase “banality of evil” to help explain the crimes of the Third Reich, of giving the Nazis a free pass because she worshipped German culture (and its great personification, Heidegger).

But in a program note, Milch-Sheriff writes that her opera is meant to indict, among others, those Jews who continued to “venerate German culture and thus their own murderers.” It’s a false dichotomy: Jewish thinkers like Arendt, and Benjamin, were a fundamental part of the culture whose brilliance the Nazis sought to extinguish. That’s the pity of it all.


Additional Information:

“Die Banalität der Liebe” runs through July 12 at the Theater Regensburg; theater-regensburg.de.

“Benjamin” was performed at the Hamburg State Opera, where it returns for two performances in October; staatsoper-hamburg.de.


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