Crisis? What crisis? The world premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Babylon at the Bavarian State Opera was a display of extravagance on such a grand scale that an interplanetary visitor might assume we are in the grip of a global financial boom. And when the lovers Innana and Tammu take off in a spaceship in the penultimate scene, the extraterrestrial guest would feel right at home.
Widmann’s Babylon is an opera “about everything”, says the composer. Therein lies the problem. Star philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s libretto traces the opaque love story of an exiled Jew, a Soul and a Babylonian priestess through seven scenes involving two conflicting versions of the Flood, human sacrifice, a jaunt to the underworld and seven singing planets. Ezekiel, Death, a Scorpion Man, several singing phalluses and vulvas, and a troupe of monkeys all put in an appearance. The Tower of Babel is not mentioned in the text, but busy supernumeraries build it out of giant computer keys in the background.
A huge orchestra, a vast cast and an orgiastic staging by Carlus Padrissa of Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus ensure that Babylon is nothing if not spectacular. Widmann, whose The Face in the Mirror for the same house in 2003 was a hit, has gone to some lengths to write listenable music, with references to Bach, Bavarian beer-tent music, jazz and high romanticism. His score is structured and imposing, but sometimes so kitschy that he seems to be limbering up for a new opera entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Padrissa’s production is lavish. Roland Olbeter’s sets involve repeated construction and destruction with piles of giant lettered building-blocks, while welovecode/Tigrelab’s videos recall oversized screensavers with essays into apocalyptic imagery and soft porn. In a rare flash of wit, one choral passage is graced with surtitles in cuneiform. It all looks imposing, but Padrissa’s achilles
heel remains the direction of individuals and emotions; take
away the trappings, and there is an awful lot of standing around.
The cast is uniformly superb, and Widmann has tailored the vocal roles well. Claron McFadden navigates the Soul’s flights of fancy with glass-clear intonation, agility and warmth, mirrored by Anna Prohaska as the exhibitionistic Inanna, a priestess who can and does sing anything. Kai Wessel makes his eerie opening solo as the singing scorpion memorably sensual; Jussi Myllys is precise and poised as Tammu; Willard White switches from regal King to scurrilous Death with evident relish; and even the vulvas and phalluses hit every note dead on. Which is just as well really, because who would want off-key genitals?