Calixto Bieito envisions a dark future under the domination of technology in “Von der Liebe Tod” (Of love, death), staging of a cantata and a song cycle (Das klagende Lied and Kindertotenlieder) by Mahler and commemorating this composer, all carried by soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker, mezzo Monika Bohinec, tenor Daniel Jenz and baritone Florian Boesch, with Lorenzo Viotti at the baton.
The Vienna State Opera pays tribute to Gustav Mahler, director of the house from 1897 to 1907, with Von der Liebe Tod (Of love, death) signed by Calixto Bieito and the head house playwright, Sergio Morabito.
Calixto Bieito, who has already worked on the Passion according to Saint John (Théâtre du Châtelet, 2021) and the War Requiem by Britton (Oslo Opera, 2016) is therefore not afraid to stage works that were not “made” for this. It is struck by the richness, both musical and dramatic, of the plaintive song that Bieito came to conceive this project, to combine efforts and courage to approach without excess of esotericism a magical world, brutal and corrupt, resonating with melancholy and despair in the Songs for dead children. The stage interpretation presents death not as an end, but as a predictable new beginning.
The course of Von der Liebe Tod traces a cycle covering two trajectories of deterioration: nature giving way to technology, and life giving way to death. Rebecca Ringst’s sets favor a clean background and an open ceiling to enhance the exploitation of space and scenic transformations, highlighting the monstrous presence of technology, symbolized by an enormous mass of colored cables descending from the sky. The magical, brutal and corrupt world of these scores is at the same time drowned in the melancholy and despair that unites them. Lighting by Michael Bauer consists of vivid colors, blue, green, orange and fuchsia pink to establish and symbolize moods, but also portray the dark vision of an apocalyptic world where beings search for their lost souls in the dark. embrace of the incandescent cables which populate the stage like luminous serpents. The soloists and chorus represent both oracle figures and victims of the unknown in this futuristic dystopia.
Soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker highlights the purity and transparency of her timbre. Its song is of a nicely covered brilliance producing a warm and pleasant melody in all registers. The breakthroughs towards the peaks are powerful and finely controlled, even in the most demanding swings, while the descents show good control of the gradations of textures. The articulations attest to the good understanding of the works and the particular context of the staging.
Mezzo Monika Bohinec asserts herself in a strong performance (made even more remarkable by the fact that she replaces the ailing Tanja Ariane Baumgartner at the last minute). The texture of the timbre is quite pleasant: at the same time velvety, rounded and full-bodied (this, coupled with the power and control that maintain regularity in the melodic movements). The low register, particularly imposing, is characterized by a darkness that skilfully articulates meditation and lamentation, in an expressiveness that captures the fatalism that underlies this whole staging.
Tenor Daniel Jenz portrays a prophetic and tormented figure, but not devoid of a sense of humor. This tumultuous combination within his role suits the warm and full-bodied character of his timbre. The upsurges in the high register produce an interesting unity between heroic will and fiery frustration, which finds its spring only in self-torment. It captures this last character very well in the abrupt falls, where the brilliance of the timbre is turned towards irony and becomes agonizing.
Baritone Florian Boesch, whose fine musicality is well known to Viennese audiences, embodies with great accuracy the duality between prophetism and fatality. The grainy-textured dark timbre (reminiscent of Falk Struckmann) conveys a rich range of feelings. The expressiveness imposes itself without any exaggeration in all registers. The lyricism draws from the density and the particular texture of the voice, from the breakthroughs and the descents which make a considered use of the impulses of the musical accompaniment.
These soloists are supported by two child soloists: Johannes Pietsch in soprano and Jonathan Mertl in alto. The two already show a promising vocal capacity and a desire for technical refinement, complementing each other without in any way falling into competition. The first enchants with the purity of his voice and an assertive expressiveness even in the shocking passages hammered by cries. The second, with a melodious, pleasant and pure song, successfully maintains the stability of his voice even in the most demanding meanders of the lyrical passages.
The Choir under the direction of Thomas Lang assumes its role as the backbone of the production with sureness and energy. The chorus soloists maintain their sense of unity, while emphasizing vocal individuality in key episodes of stage development that confront soloists and chorus.
Lorenzo Viotti conducts a huge phalanx bringing together the Orchestra and the Bühnenorchester (the stage orchestra) of the house. The musical direction strikes from the start with its dramatic power. The sound mass is dark and bubbling in the low register, dense and plaintive in the middle register, mysterious and apprehensive in the winds of the high register. With the dark mass of the strings as a backdrop, the particular highlighting of the contact between the brass and the winds effectively establishes the accumulation of tensions which precede the final fall… without forgetting to keep a note of hope. This manifests itself in the equivocal purity and transparency of the oboes and flutes, which transcribe both the naivety and the mystery of the unknown.
Despite some insistent jeers against the staging, the audience’s enthusiasm for the soloists and the musical accompaniment is unanimous.