Newspaper article International New York Times

In 'Morgen Und Abend,' a Musical Interpretation of the Afterlife ; Georg Friedrich Haas Explores Unconventional Passing in His New Opera

Newspaper article International New York Times

In 'Morgen Und Abend,' a Musical Interpretation of the Afterlife ; Georg Friedrich Haas Explores Unconventional Passing in His New Opera

Article excerpt

Georg Friedrich Haas explores an unconventional passing in his new opera.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Life, death and what comes after are the core materials of opera, whose composers sweep their heroines, like Gounod's Marguerite, up to heaven or dispatch their heretics, like Don Giovanni, down to hell.

But Georg Friedrich Haas's "Morgen und Abend," which had its world premiere at Covent Garden on Friday, revisits these conventional plot devices in an unconventional way -- renouncing the high camp of angelic choirs, demonic choruses and blazing trumpets for a serious and sober, though ultimately radiant, imagining of what it might be like to die and pass into another kind of sentience.

"Morgen und Abend" (Morning and Evening), which runs until Nov. 28, is directed with restraint by Graham Vick and conducted like an exercise in mindfulness by Michael Boden. The libretto is by the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, whose work is spare, austere and inscrutable, indebted to Beckett, without the absurdity, and Pinter, with the silences.

In academia it is known as "postdramatic," which means nothing much occurs. But there is a sense of something in the nothingness that gives it potency. And that is what Mr. Haas picks up on in his opera, across 90 minutes of unbroken music.

All that happens is that a Norwegian fisherman is born -- an event recounted in spoken words against the orchestra -- and dies (in song), only realizing that he is dead when he encounters people long deceased but sent to help with his transition to the afterlife.

They are like the angel in the Elgar oratorio "Dream of Gerontius." But where "Gerontius" is passionate and perfumed in its Catholicism, "Morgen und Abend" is contemplative and quietly mystical, with no particular theology for all its Christian resonance.

Mr. Haas, an Austrian who lives in New York, has said that his musical interpretation of the afterlife owes much to a near-death experience that he had in childhood and remembers as involving bright light.

More concerned with texture than event, his music uses a large orchestra divided into overlapping choirs of instruments that surge, swell and deflate across long time durations. It recalls -- perhaps on purpose -- measures in the score of Britten's "Billy Budd" in which no one sings and the stage is empty, but an overlapping sequence of orchestral triads signals that momentous things are happening out of sight.

It also probably owes something to the so-called Holy Minimalists -- Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki, John Tavener -- although its simple processes are spiced by a discriminating use of microtones that edge the tuning into areas of interesting discomfort.

But whatever their indebtedness, these great surges of sound are richly colored and a sonic analogue for the intense, pulsating light of Mr. …

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