World-Premiere of Johannes Maria Staud’s Die Weiden: Opera from the Echo Chamber

The Vienna State Opera, better known as one of the foremost museums of opera, staged a world premiere–the first in eight years–on Saturday, December 8. The Tyrolian Johannes Maria Staud, steadfast contributor to Wien Modern and collaborator with the Klangforum Wien, had been asked to write the work and turned to German poet and essayist Durs Grünbein for the libretto. The result: Die Weiden–The Willows. Ingo Metzmacher conducted.

Naturally, this was an event, with the Who’s Who of Vienna’s cultural scene in attendance and press descending even from Germany. The whole thing had been billed as a political opera, very explicit about its implicit analogy to the current government in Austria and thereby promising to be edgy in how it would preach to the converted its gospel of the locally accepted wisdom that the world, soiled by the stirred masses of the great unwashed, is bound to go to hell in a handbasket. Oh, and that all the alleged virtues of the bourgeoisie are but extensions of an ideology from yesteryear, bound to repeat the murderous mistakes of the past.

Not that the story, sans analogy, isn’t without promise. Inspired, as per Grünbein, by works like Heart of Darkness, the opera had an uncanny resemblance to the 1972 film Deliverance–two couples canoeing down a river into an ambiguous but steadily increasingly feeling of impending doom. The river is the intended protagonist. It is called Dorma here but–wink-wink, nudge-nudge–it’s the Danube! This “Land on the Great River” is the homeland of the ancestors of Lea (an ever-composed Rachel Frenkel). She’s undertaking a romantic and sociologically exploratory trip back home (despite the ominous warnings of her parents, bundled with a heavy-handed analogy of an evil carp-people) with her new boyfriend Peter from the old country (the eventually dramatically and vocally impressive, if initially barrelling Tomasz Konieczny).

Climate change is thrown into the mix, as the river swells to a brown(!) mass, threatening our two pairs: Lea and Peter as well as Edgar (the overacting Thomas Ebenstein) and Kitty (Andrea Carroll as a mighty convincing minx), a decadently superficial couple, oblivious and ultimately inconsequential; their liberated party-lifestyle consigned to perdition.

The threat is, for the most part, never quite explicit but ever present. This is where Staud’s music best succeeds–in creating a tense feeling of suspense (the Blair Witch Project came to mind) with his use of high strings, electronics, and amplified percussion that was fed in from speakers in the pit. Toward the end of the first half and in spots of the second, Staud’s music achieves some conciseness and, without developing natural appeal, serves a dramatic function in depicting personal relationships.

The circus-music burlesque interludes, meant to depict the shallow societies on either side of the ocean, are not quite ironic and sound like the worst instincts of Jörg Widmann (Babylon!) glued together and no editor in sight. Much of the rest sounds like a large orchestra being used because it was available rather than needed. Electronic carp-gurgling and clock-ticking ripple along the surfaces of a musical language in equal parts modern, harmless, plain, and trivial. When Staud quotes straight Wagner, from Die Meistersinger and Tristan (signifying nationalism and seduction in music), the effect was not “Wagner=Hitler=BAD” but a tangible, unintended audience response of “Ah, real MUSIC!” Death by comparison.

The audience, divided in its response between politely abstaining from applause, cheery support from relatives of the production team, and a very minute amount of boos, was not only let down by the music but equally as much by the libretto. At its harmlessly worst was this line: “I want toast. I want bacon. I want your scrambleds.”–(Peter, articulating his non-sexual needs to Lea.) As if out to prove that demagoguery was not a prerogative of the nationalist, lowest-common-denominator-chasing right wing, the text goes about politicizing and moralizing with all the subtlety of a mallet. And the staging, not to be outdone, went right along.

Clichés as far as the eye can see: Menorahs and kippahs as signifiers of the rich Jewish parents of Lea’s in their New York penthouse. Given the rich history of antisemitism of the European left (not beyond employing anti-Semitic symbolism in a work of anti-anti-Semitic intent), this gave occasion to fear for the worst. Fortunately, all subsequent clichés were reserved for the cartoonish forest-loving, rifle-cherishing, refugee-murdering, Lederhosen-wearing, brown-shirt-donning, beer-mugging Austrians. Technically not Austrians but carp-people, metamorphosing into these fish as they increasingly show themselves to be unrepentant nationalists, lured, encouraged, and incited into their new shamelessness by the Ersatz-Wagnerian figure of composer Krachmeyer (“Noisesmith”; believably portrayed by Udo Samel). But Jan Pappelbaum’s sets, with photo backdrops of real towns on the Danube, made sure that even the more obvious suggestions were made extra explicit.

Peter’s ambiguous stance, seemingly unsure whether to side with his girlfriend or “his people, good people”, is put to a test when we arrive at Peter’s parents’ comic book-style 19th-century family household–more industrialist nouveau-riche than bourgeois, with exploited black servants, velvet waistcoats, lead crystal glasses, and eating very Austrian pastry for every course at dinner–including, bizarrely, eating them off a selection of firearms.

It is not clear how well the indecisive Peter meets the standards of this trial; later Lea and he continue to paddle–in their clunkily suspended canoe (direction Andrea Moses)–from scene to scene, but for a while the occasionally aggressive, unreliable Peter is tied up. At a Biergarten-gathering a polemicist and Krachmeyer (the only subtly drawn character) rally the people into action. Although just as unsubtle and cliché-ridden as most of the rest, at least there was an uncomfortable sense of too-close-to-reality to this scene. The chilling effect was largely undone when, for the very finale, a Greek chorus of didactic Nazi death-march victims warns the audience of the errors of the ways of the benighted “others” out there. (But not, of course, of us, the ideologically pure opera attendees.)

Instead of a modern-day J’Accuse…!, Die Weiden ended up satirizing only itself, its makers, and those who believe such lack of nuance, such unbridled crudity, wrapped in narcissist music, offers anything except an example for society’s unbridgeable divisions.