Ask yourself an important question. No, not whose bed you slept in last night. No, not how did you get that bruise. Because at some point, even if you were lucky enough to be born into a culture or a country that has been gifted with a bloodless past, you will suffer loss. And trauma. And the grisly aftermath.
How does a displaced population rebuild from historical trauma was the big question (with well-intended solutions) in the aftermath of genocide, war and ghastly man-made historical traumas. Ask any Armenian or Jew or Native American or Cambodian or Rwandan (etc., infinity, sadness, madness) how they’ve endured. It’s a lifelong reframe, which alluded to some of the questions raised last night at Linz's new Musiktheater am Volksgarten in a world premiere by Philip Glass based on Peter Handke's play Spuren Der Verirrten in David Pountney’s direction.
Great works by even greater men have built on the framework of loss -- Picasso's Guernica, Elie Wiesel's Night, Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour -- in a global language of aftermath. There are a few ways to make sense of loss, including absurdity, a complete surrender of order with a silver lining of fickle inspiration and hope, which is one way that Pountney and the production team digested Handke’s gritty play. But with absurdity, any fool can laugh in the face of senseless chaos. Laughter’s what separates man from beast. There’s a great Milanese expression that OC wishes she could remember from her hotel room in Linz about hope and fools. Anyway, surrender to absurdity only comes after the rebuilding process, a solution and framework that’s a bit premature in Pountney’s direction and narrative arch.
In the dialogue of global loss, Handke asks “Where are we?” “Wo Sind Wir?” Anyone can figure out that they’re neither here or there but the most important question, for OC anyway, is “Where do we go?” & “What now?” It’s not about understanding how you’ve come to that point, because, let’s face it – the unflinching, unsavory answer is that life is full of unexplainable trauma and the only thing that one can predict is unpredictability. It’s the aftermath, the remembrance, the bearing witness, the rebuilding that separates the victims from the survivors.
Historical trauma aside, opening the season with such an unconventional work was considered risky by Intendant Rainer Mennicken but who cares when you can show off all the capabilities and potential of your newest, shiniest toys? The orchestra pit floats, the stage rotates on Saturn’s rings of turntables, the centerpiece "chandelier" glows with multicolored LED lights. So here we have masses of chorus, actors, dancers, and at a certain point, the orchestra as onstage protagonists, a collective mass of the “everyman” intended to make the condition less alienating. Effective, yes, as collective loss. But with Handke’s archetypal message and Glass’ self-sustaining, textural, classically-sourced score punctuated by ethereal choir work, you don’t need much else, which is why Amir Hosseinpour’s aggressive, severe choreography -- while precise, well-intended and executed flawlessly by the Ballett des Landestheaters Linz -- was painted in strokes a bit too broad. Frankly, with historical trauma, one understands the implied desperation and exhaustion without having the themes so boldly narrated.
The opera-event (because really, it’s not an opera) is split into two distinct halves cleaved by an intermission. The first half is an energized, absurdist reality with Hosseinpour’s interpretive movements and Glass’s steam engine glistening with lovely arias behind bucolic images and nostalgic landscapes that have an underside of grit & grotesque. And as it often does, the world changes from light to dark in the span of an opera house intermission. The spectator returns to a post-apocalyptic, J.G. Ballard dystopia, a mass of displaced population reeling in the aftermath of an implied trauma, empty spaces and voids, scenery falling away added to the disorder and chaos, somber and gritty.
When you peel back Pountney’s absurdity, there’s an effective message on the collective nature of loss and its aftermath, which culminates in a complete upheaval led by the Bruckner Orchester Linz onstage with the chorus filling the orchestra’s seats, trained to chief conductor Dennis Russell Davies’ every nuance in a young, flexible sound, although nothing bright or burnished quite like our Italian orgies of strings, woods & metals, but it's disciplined and very sure of itself.