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August 20, 2012 5:55 pm
A hundred and twenty-eight operas in one evening! In our age of more and more, who could resist? This year’s Ruhrtriennale, the first under composer Heiner Goebbels’ leadership, opens with an extravagant staging of John Cage’s anarchic Europeras 1 & 2, only the third since its 1987 premiere in Frankfurt. Of all this year’s 100th birthday celebrations for Cage, this must be the most expensive. It must also be one of the most fun.
The synopsis Cage collated from fragments of old operas reads like a literary parlour game: “On a public bench he falls in love; however, her father, an evil magician, died, giving birth to him. He is in fact his son, her delight . . . ”
It is a paradox of this piece, for which Cage used the I Ching to assemble two-and-a-quarter hours of associative nonsense, that the chaos only works if it is fastidiously structured. Very few companies have the resources to do manage it. Goebbels, himself acting as stage director, has spared no expense in creating a full evening of minutely choreographed absurdity. The results are not nearly as funny as you might expect – perhaps that’s the point.
Ten formidable soloists from across Europe select their own arias, many from obscure operas. Costumes, gestures, lighting, sets and surtitles are all randomly attributed, while the 26 members of the Ruhrtriennale orchestra play individual extracts from different operas, each without reference to the other, all governed by a timer rather than a conductor. The capitol burns, a bass dressed as Queen Elizabeth I becomes increasingly dishevelled, an enchanted forest is created and removed, an avalanche of boulders bounces across the stage, Napoleon meets Nero and Gretel, stage hands drive across the stage in cherry-pickers and fork-lifts, tooting their horns.
In the 90-minute first half, Goebbels uses 90 metres of the cavernous industrial Jahrhunderthalle as a stage for a technical tour de force of beguiling beauty and crackpot precision. For the second half, just 45 minutes long, a flat set, intimately close, and monochrome costumes for the singers emphasise the music’s more pared-back tone.
“For 200 years the Europeans have sent us their operas,” wrote Cage. “Now I’m returning all of them.” Though it was close to 40 degrees celsius on Sunday night, the performers never flagged, and the audience stayed damply glued to the edges of their seats. The care lavished on Cage’s scrupulous deconstructivism has been well rewarded.
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