Women and War at the Salzburg Festival,
by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
World War I began a hundred years ago, and Europe, as well as the rest of the globe, changed forever. This summer, the beginning of the 'Great War', as it was then called, is remembered in many an occasion. For example, the Ravenna Festival is entirely devoted to this theme, mostly by reviving music from that period, and by performing important Requiem masses.
The start of the First World War is also one of the main components, along with the celebrations for Richard Strauss' one-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday, of the 2014 Salzburg Festival. The entire drama section is devoted to this theme, with unusual works such as Die letzten Tage der Menschheit by Karl Kraus (in an abridged version: the full drama lasts six days and nights) and rarely staged plays such as Don Juan kommt aus Dem Krieg by Odön von Horváth, Hinkemann by Ernst Toller and Der Abschied by Walter Kappacher. A multimedia play (The Forbidden Zone by Duncan Macmillan) was commissioned by the festival. In the music area, the main element was the new opera Charlotte Salomon by Marc-André Dalbavie, also commissioned by the festival.
I saw the opera and the multimedia play, and they have many common features. Both deal with how the war affected women. Both are based on actual (and documented) life stories. In both works each character sings, and speaks, in his/her own language and a system of surtitles helps a full understanding of the plot.
Let us focus on Charlotte Salomon, an artist — ie a painter — who died in Auschwitz at the age of twenty-six: over thirteen-hundred of her paintings can be seen in Amsterdam's Jewish Museum. The story begins in around 1913 when her father Dr Kann, a Berlin doctor, met his wife (and Charlotte's mother) Franziska, a nurse. They worked together in World War I when Dr Kann became a German hero, but in 1926 Franziska committed suicide — a fact that was hidden to nine-year-old Charlotte. Dr Kann married again, an operatic star, Paulinka, an alto. Things worked well until Nazism took over Germany and Dr Kann's medals were quickly forgotten. Charlotte was humiliated because she could not be awarded a painting prize she had won at the Berlin Academy.
As life became increasingly harder, Dr Kann and Paulinka escaped to the Netherlands, where they were able to survive World War II in hiding. Charlotte was sent to her grandparents who had emigrated to Southern France. When it appeared clear that the French would deliver the Jews to the Germans, her grandmother committed suicide; thus Charlotte learned about the suicide of her own mother too, and also of other women in her family. Under fear of a similar ending, she went to a French doctor who helped her recover with painting. She married; her husband too died in Auschwitz. After the war, the French doctor gave her father and her step-mother her book of paintings. In short, three generations of women are crushed by the war.
This complex plot — a prologue, two acts and an epilogue, two and a half hours of music without intermission — is presented on the Felsenreitschule's vast stage: ten different panels frame the action's various places — from Germany to France. The stage direction is by Luc Bondy, the stage sets by Johannes Schütz, the costumes by Moidele Bickel, and the lighting by Bertrand Couderc. The action moves quickly: Charlotte is interpreted by an actress, Johanna Wokalek, by a narrator and by a mezzo, Marianne Crebassa. The narrator has a useful function in explaining the plot, which spans over four decades, in different countries and places.
Composer Marc-André Dalbavie comes from a background of experimentalism, but in Charlotte Salomon he blends atonal and tone row music with melody, harmony and quotations from melodramas (such as Bizet's Carmen). He is a follower of 'spectral music', a compositional technique developed in the 1970s, using computer analysis of the quality of timbre in music. The spectral approach focuses on manipulating, interconnecting and transforming the features identified by this analysis. In this formulation, computer-based sound analysis and representations of audio signals are treated as being analogous to a timbral representation of sound.
Spectral music fits Charlotte Salomon in that it delves into the personalities of the characters and the milieu surrounding them. Dalbavie conducts a comparatively small ensemble from the Mozarteum where cellos and brass have a prominent role, but there is no live electronics. The opera calls for eleven soloists, some in several roles. The women have more important parts than the men. In addition to Marianne Crebassa, Anaïk Morel (Paulinka) and Géraldine Chauvet (Franziska) were particularly memorable.
On the opening night, 28 July 2014, the reception was somewhat mixed. In my view, an intermission between the first and the second part would have helped the audience to digest a difficult score.
Macmillan's The Forbidden Zone, essentially a drama with incidental music by Paul Clark, is based, by and large, on a novel by Mary Borden (1886-1968), an heiress born in Chicago, married to a Scot and very active in women's rights. Borden's text is interpolated with passages from writings by Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt.
This play, seen 30 July 2014, deals with two parallel stories: two cultivated professional women — one German and one English — are allowed into 'The Forbidden Zone' (a no man's land where women are generally not allowed) to help in the development of chemical weapons. They both attempt to stop or boycott these activities. Although they both fail, and for this, take their lives, the play ends with a sense of hope that women may stop wars, or at least make them more humane. The multimedia setting was very impressive and the audience's reception very warm.