Luminous: Maria Bengtsson in the title role
Luminous: Maria Bengtsson in the title role © Bernd Uhlig

Detlev Glanert’s Oceane is a deft and clever piece, a gentle homage to a literary luminary, and a reflection on the role of the outsider. Glanert’s eighth full-scale opera is a speculative completion of Theodor Fontane’s unfinished novella Oceane von Parceval, just in time for the writer’s 200th birthday celebrations.

Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s taut libretto tells the story of a shabby seaside hotel community that is rocked by the arrival of a beautiful woman. She is wealthy and mysterious, wild and compelling. Baron Martin von Dircksen falls in love with her, hotelier Madame Louise hopes for a loan, Pastor Baltzer denounces her as the source of all evil. The people are first intrigued by her, and later repulsed. A fisherman dies. The young doctor and his betrothed provide a carefree counterpoint. This cannot end well.

Robert Carsen’s staging sets the action on a slate-grey Baltic coastal promenade, with the sea as a restless projection dominating the set. His design team create a nostalgic 19th-century black-and-white aesthetic, Edward Gorey without the splatter. Glanert’s music also owes much to the 19th century, with the first act structured around the society dances — waltz, polka, galop — at a ball. All is tuneful and glib until Oceane enters, with a series of discords following a very awkward silence — the first of many. Glanert leaves us in do doubt about Oceane’s outsider status.

There is more than a little of Visconti’s Death in Venice about it, as well as a large dose of Britten’s Peter Grimes, and a few nods to Debussy’s La mer. Originality does not seem to be Glanert’s aim. His focus is far more on well-crafted vocal lines, superb orchestration, clear dramatic shape and descriptive sound-painting.

Oceane is the archetypal water-nymph, insufficiently amphibious to survive on land. Society rejects her, and her lover cannot save her. She chooses to depart, leaving only a “Dear John” letter. Like many of Fontane’s heroines, the character is based on his daughter. Fictional incest was all the rage in the 1800s.

Nikolai Schukoff and Maria Bengtsson
Nikolai Schukoff and Maria Bengtsson © Bernd Uhlig

At just two hours including interval, Oceane makes a quick, painless and engaging evening. The Deutsche Oper has clearly lavished resources on the production, and it looks and sounds gorgeous. Carsen moves his figures with clarity and elegance, conductor Donald Runnicles’ mellow romanticism is leavened with malicious foreboding. The cast is first-rate, from Maria Bengtsson’s luminous account of the title role to Nicole Haslett’s effervescently air-headed Kristina. Nikolai Schukoff makes an impulsive, headstrong Martin, Christoph Pohl’s Dr Felgentreu is endearingly warm and direct, Albert Pesendorfer’s Pastor Baltzer threatens darkly, while Doris Soffel brings a fraught poise to the part of Madame Louise.

Apart from the availability of funding for Fontane’s anniversary, why do we need an opera on this story today? Glanert sees his work as a timely parable on xenophobia, but the notion remains hidden in the programme notes; experienced live, it remains a backward-looking period drama, beautifully made, deeply conservative.


To May 24,

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