TROJAHN Orest • Marc Albrecht, cond, Dietrich Henschel (Orest); Sarah Castle (Elektra); Romy Petrick (Hermione); Rosemary Joshua (Helena); Finnur Bjarnason (Apollo/Dionysos); Johannes Chum (Menelaos); Vocal Ens of Ch of De Nederlandse Op, NetherlandsRead more PO • CHALLENGE 72605 (76:04) Live: Amsterdam 12/2011
A more unsettling, horrid, beautiful, theatrical 76 minutes could hardly be imagined than this extraordinary new opera premiered in Amsterdam back in 2011. Loosely based on Euripides’s Orestes, Manfred Trojahn’s own libretto condenses the drama into seven scenes, starting two weeks after Orest has killed his mother, Clytaemnestra. Driven half mad by his visions of her and of the god Apollo, Orest awaits his judgment from the men of Argos, whether he is to be stoned to death or imprisoned for life. With his sister urging him to murder their narcissistic aunt, Helena, Orest’s journey is one of guilt and fraternal duty. After the brutal murder of Helena, Orest’s vision of the god Apollo helps him to resolve his struggle to overcome the revenge and violence that defines him. It ends with him seeking a future with his cousin Hermione, but despite the queasy note of hope, the ending is as frightening as that of Strauss’s final bars of Elektra, making this extraordinary new opera a perfectly valid companion piece to that seminal work.
A huge battery of different vocal techniques are combined by Trojahn to convey the fraught narrative, yet none of the writing feels arbitrary, and the opera’s compactness gives this bloody, dysfunctional take a wonderfully clenched claustrophobic feel. Trojahn continues the noble line from Strauss and Berg, via Henze and Reimann, in a career that studiously avoided the German avant-garde movement. Trojahn forges a path that, although brutal and Modernist, retains its close ties with past 20th-century operas and, tellingly, he is modest about his aims: “basically doing what composers of opera have always done. Telling stories about us, today!”
A hideous scream opens the opera (a grisly premonition of the scream that is to follow from Helena) before a frenzy of whispering of “Orest.” These Furies are, for Trojahn, the ravings inside Orest’s head, rather than actual beings. Their hideous motif concludes the opera, creating a very uneasy vote of confidence for Orest and Hermione’s future. Orest’s music is fraught and text-driven, yet has fine moments of introspection, especially in scene four’s wonderful duet between brother and sister, and an obvious glance back at Strauss’s work. Strauss, too would have been proud of the violent, carnal intermezzo that hurls the listener into the stratospherically high writing for Helena and Hermione. In fact, the whole piece is very well constructed, with a clear use and place for each of the many ideas that Trojahn displays.
The cast (with some big names) is uniformly excellent. In such an ungratefully declamatory role as Orest, Dietrich Henschel proves unburstable and maintains his beautiful tone most of the time, something even his mighty predecessor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau couldn’t always do in similarly stark material. The lovely, flinty brightness of Rosemary Joshua’s Helena complements the equally girlish Hermione of Romy Patrick. The gods Apollo and Dionysos are beautifully characterized by tenor Finnur Bjarnason, while Sarah Castle is a very formidable Elektra. Likewise, I can’t think of anyone better than the 20th-century music specialist Marc Albrecht for bringing this mercurial, angular writing to life.
Without a score to check, all I can say is how involved and unclinical it feels as a performance. Sound is full and well balanced and, given the lack of applause or stage noise, there has clearly been some clever patching of the live sessions. Annoying, given the lavish digibook presentation, that the German libretto is printed without translation, especially when we are given English and Dutch for the otherwise fine notes and bios. Still, that really is a minor quibble on such a punchy, arresting release as this. Perhaps a DVD will surface with subtitles, so that we can witness Katie Mitchell’s production. By turns horrid and beautiful, unsettling and serene, Orest for once really does earn those overused adjectives: visceral and astonishing.