© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
September 23, 2013 5:58 pm
Over plains of roiling dry-ice fog, a bank of deconstructed pianos, enwrapped by robotic arms, cables, mallets and plectrums, inches inexorably forwards. The voices of long-dead Colombian Indians swirl around the mechanical piano sounds. Disembodied voices read texts from Adalbert Stifter, from Malcolm X, from Lévi-Strauss and William S. Burroughs. A moving metal plate reveals segments of a 15th-century hunting scene; one of the pianos begins to play Bach’s Italian Concerto.
Stifters Dinge is billed as “a play without actors, a performance without performers”. It could also be described as 70 minutes of pure delight, or as a nerd’s paradise. As the intendant of the current Ruhrtriennale, composer Heiner Goebbels has every right to bring his 2007 masterpiece to the Duisburg’s Kraftzentrale. In this cavernous industrial hall, the piece looks as fresh as if it had been born yesterday. In fact it has been seen at more than 300 performances around the world already.
Stifters Dinge is not new, but it is utterly wonderful, and perfect for the Ruhr, where performance spaces invite reflection on the relationship between man and technology, between nature and man, between the passage of time and human achievement. Stifters Dinge does all this and more. Goebbels’ Heath Robinson machines have the inherent beauty of the best inventions. They are infinitely complex, drolly subversive, and yet somehow so whole that you find yourself wondering why nobody has done this before, and where you could get one for your home.
The real novelty at last week’s Ruhrtriennale was Robert Wilson’s new production of Das Mädchen mit dem Schwefelhölzern, Helmut Lachenmann’s most successful opera (1997). This is altogether a more ambivalent accomplishment.
Wilson’s set makes the space of the Jahrhunderthalle’s remoter reaches entirely his own. Audience members must clamber into the pew-like seats of a square arena – part operating theatre, part boxing-ring, part anatomy hall. The visible action takes place in the plain square below; choir, soloists and orchestra, in many ways the work’s key protagonists, line the four sides of a high gallery above.
The strength of Lachenmann’s work lies in its combination of ambiguity and suggestion. Texts by Red Army Faction terrorist Gudrun Ensslin and Leonardo da Vinci, most of them fragmented beyond recognition, are added to the vaguest shape of Hans Christian Andersen’s depressing story “The Little Match Girl”. Its social criticism is implicit, but nothing is spelled out. Quite the opposite. A sense of cold, the glitter of ice, the gasp of human breath – these things sound real enough to touch, but conventional notes or phrases are few and far between. The composer called it “Music with Images”. Wilson provides those images, in his trademark Japanese Noh Theatre style, through the dualistic interaction of an ageing Little Match Girl (Angela Winkler) and a shadowy black-clad ringmaster (Wilson himself).
For all its notional abstraction, Wilson’s narrative sticks surprisingly close to the fairy-tale. We see the ice, the fog, the stars, the lighted window, the shabby crowds, the fire’s flames. Norbert Ommer provides an electronic soundscape that is both organic and magical. And yet it was the HR Sinfonieorchester under Emilio Pomàrico and the singers of ChorWerk Ruhr who ultimately provided the evening’s most engrossing content last weekend, with a musical account of the piece that was every bit as aurally beguiling and intellectually provocative as Lachenmann could possibly have wanted.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.