Thomas, Schwetzingen Festival, Germany – review

Matthias is dying. We hear him breathe. Laboured, at irregular intervals. At his bedside are Thomas, his partner, and Michael, his nurse. Michael leaves the room; Matthias breathes his last.

After the spectacular success of their 2011 Bluthaus, an opera about incest and murder, Librettist Händl Klaus and composer Georg Friedrich Haas have again joined forces to pen a new opera for Schwetzingen’s annual opera festival. Thomas takes a mercilessly close look at death. In the first half of Klaus’s libretto, the process of dying is minutely catalogued – the body’s progressive internal failure, the issuing of the death certificate, the washing of the body. Then comes Matthias’s dawning realisation of loss, the pain of regret and, finally, the realisation of love, more vivid than life itself. Matthias rises from his bed; the two men enjoy a meal together. Are we in the realm of the miraculous or the metaphysical? Or is this merely make-believe? No answers are forthcoming.

Haas has composed this chamber opera for an ensemble of plucked strings – harp, zither, harpsichord, guitar and mandolin – re-tuned in microtones and augmented by percussion and accordion. The effect is by turns delicate, beguiling, bittersweet and graphically descriptive. Far from sounding out of tune, Haas’s microtones recall the naturally shrinking intervals of the overtone series, making them hauntingly familiar.

For the key protagonists Schwetzingen has assembled a top-drawer cast of singers who make the parts sound as if they have been sung for decades: Otto Katzameier as Thomas, Wolfgang Newerla as Matthias and Kai Wessel as Michael. And Michel Galante conducts with precision and empathy.

Though Thomas is less than two hours long, it makes for a gruelling evening. Director Elisabeth Gabriel and designer Vinzenz Gertler take a literal view of the text: hospital bed, surgical gloves and catheter bag are all present. Their super-realism is counter-productive. When a libretto is narrative (like Britten’s Rape of Lucretia or Frank Martin’s Le Vin herbé), the last thing an audience needs is to see what is already told in text and music repeated a third time in action.

People who die and then sing are, of course, very much the stuff of opera, but Klaus and Haas strive consciously for something quite different: a real confrontation with the rot and stink of mortality and a genuine attempt to look beyond that to the immortality of love. This might come off better with a more abstract staging. As it is, in sincerely striving to recreate the painful intimacy of death for an audience of voyeurs, the piece comes dangerously close to a kind of palliative care ward tourism.

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