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In the 1920s and 1930s, the Perm Theatre of Opera and Ballet in the Urals was renowned as an experimental theatre for the Soviet avant-garde. This month has seen a return to those roots, with the world premiere of Dmitry Kurlyandsky’s Nosferatu. As one might expect from this resolutely radical composer, this is no conventional opera. Nosferatu could perhaps more accurately be described as sound-and-art installation and performance piece, a Gesamtkunstwerk bringing together voice, orchestra, ritual theatre, imagery and dance.
This Russian-Greek collaboration has been nine years in gestation. Perm’s flamboyant young artistic director and conductor, Teodor Currentzis, first approached Kurlyandsky and Dimitris Yalamas, the librettist. Yalamas, in turn, involved Theodoros Terzopoulos, a specialist in Greek tragedy, as director and choreographer. The set comes courtesy of Terzopoulos’s long-time collaborator, the Arte Povera and performance artist Jannis Kounellis.
Terzopoulos’s interpretation of the ritual of ancient Greek drama serves its subject well, for this is not the Dracula-inspired vampire Nosferatu of FW Murnau’s silent movie masterpiece. The clue comes in one of the name’s possible etymological roots, a Greek word meaning “man who carries disease”. For Kurlyandsky’s purposes, this is Everyman, and his theme is our insistence on corrupting and destroying the world in which we live.
Here Nosferatu is conflated with Hades, god of the underworld, and the narrative – insofar as there is one – follows the rape of Persephone, abducted while picking flowers, and her descent into the kingdom of the dead, where she is gradually deprived of all her senses, and much more besides.
Kurlyandsky has said that he is trying to forget what he knows about music. His very particular acoustic makes us wonder whether what we are hearing are external sounds or the inner workings of the body. He asks the unorthodox of the Musica Aeterna Orchestra and Chorus. Members of the string section pull their bows across the backs of their instruments; rulers are used to make rasping sounds, while a roller pushed up and down a bare forearm makes a squeaking noise. From the choir comes equally orchestrated breathing sounds of different calibres – sighs, pants, roars, guttural noises, wheezing and gulping.
Indeed, the curtain rises on the gaping mouth of Tasos Dimas’s Nosferatu. Standing before Kounellis’s first screen, of suspended empty wooden coffins – the boundary between this world and the underworld? – he produces pained, primordial sounds. Breaths gradually transform into letters, then letters into words, words into sentences. We witness a symbolic loss of innocence as a ballerina bound at the wrist struggles to free herself. The deprivations and violence begin – gags, blindfolds, ritual daggers. Kounellis’s second and most eloquent screen consists of these ritual knives suspended in rows and glinting menacingly.
His third is almost cheery, with brightly coloured books suspended on ropes like beads on a necklace. But grim reality returns as one of the Graeae begins gleefully ripping the pages out of a book at the front of the stage. This world sees the death of learning and knowledge too. It is a dark and terrible place, ravaged by decadence and corruption and the violence of the mob. Little wonder that over-18s only are admitted.
As one of the Graeae, Natalia Pshenichnikova’s vocal pyrotechnics are key to the powerful but fragile musical atmosphere of the 120-minute piece, which – though compelling – loses momentum at times. Russian actress Alla Demidova puts in a magisterial performance as the Coryphaeus – leader of the Chorus – even when simply intoning the ingredients of poison in Latin.
Kounellis rejected the related fourth screen after the glass of the apothecary bottles had to be made in plastic. Without it, one can see the backdrop of empty jackets sewn together, a favoured motif of his. Tumbling downwards, they bring to mind some descent into Limbo from a Renaissance painting. And Limbo this is in a way: the horror of this world is that the wretched Nosferatu and his Persephone (the striking Sofia Hill), who returns to Hades year in, year out bearing the coin of payment to the boatman in her mouth, cannot die and leave this dreadful place of their own volition.
Perhaps the last and uplifting word should be left to Kounellis: “We live in a state of war against humanism,” he says. “I remain faithful.”
‘Nosferatu’ is sponsored by the Moscow-based Stella Art Foundation, and will be performed again in next year’s spring season. theatre.perm.ru