An 80-minute timeframe doesn’t allow much room for exploring the larger issues of Demons (or Evil Spirits as it is known here), Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel about incipient revolutionary unrest. Adriana Hölszky’s new opera barely tries to do so.
Yona Kim’s laconic libretto, arranged in disconnected scenes, outlines the characters but leaves them largely undeveloped, scarcely elevating them above the level of soap opera. Even the ruthless Stavrogin, whose suicide in the novel is triggered by guilt, remains a carefree manipulator of others, although – in one of the production’s few emotionally telling moments – he registers horror when a woman shows up pregnant with his child. Piotr, the revolutionary, argues with his weak-willed father, Stepan, about personal matters, but what of Piotr’s conspiracy to bring down the government? At first one looked to the chorus, deployed in a rear balcony, to provide a measure of commentary, but apparently Hölszky, who often fragmented the ensemble into competing groups, never meant for anything they sang or spoke to be understood.
Indeed, the Romanian-born Hölszky, who until last year taught composition at Salzburg’s Mozarteum, has produced a score consisting of one avant-garde cliché after another. You wonder why she bothered to write for a full orchestra when its resources are so meagrely used. Several percussionists do double duty, but for much of the time the orchestra supplies little more than random punctuation of vocal lines. And with their wide leaps and dissonant intervals, those vocal lines could hardly be more ungainly. Nor is the cause of intelligibility helped when multiple soloists sing different words at the same time.
Still, the Mannheim company strives valiantly to make something meaningful of Böse Geister. Joachim Schlömer’s direction is succinct yet imaginative – perhaps too imaginative in concluding the opera with mass suicide. Stavrogin (Steven Scheschareg in assertive voice) watches the action from a settee in the audience, accompanied by three ghostly blondes. Jens Kilian’s traditional sets are contained in two claustrophobia-inducing, rotating cubes. The cast – which also includes Evelyn Krahe as Warwara, the countertenor Zvi Emanuel-Marial as Piotr, and Martin Busen as Stepan – is uniformly strong. Chorus master Tilman Michael deserves credit for the discipline shown by his singers, and the conductor Roland Kluttig moves things along obligingly.