Octavia.Trepanation #HF17: political opera remains problematic

The opening scene of Octavia. Trepanation is breathtaking. A Chinese terracotta army is positioned on either side of Lenin’s laurelled head. – The fighters are headless. Lenin’s brain will serve all, seems to be the suggestion. Associations with the image of Che Guevara in the opera Reconstruction pop into my head. But while the (anti-American) message of that 1969 production was brought across chyrstal clear, director Boris Joechananov and composer Dmitri Kourliandski only sow confusion. Political opera, it remains problematic

Red light, no red thread

On paper, this new production of the Holland Festival promised to shed an interesting light on the mechanisms of tyranny. Joechananov and Kourliandski bring together three historic rulers. The Chinese emperor who wants his soldiers to be buried along with him, the Roman ruler Nero destroying his own city, the Russian revolutionary Lenin who appears to be just as tyrannical as the tsar. The stage often bathes in blood-red light, as does Lenin’s opened skull. However, a ‘red’ thread in the story cannot be discovered.

Yet the opera sets out so well. The headless terracotta fighters sing sustained vocals, while Lenin’s skull is being lifted by means of a laser beam. Soon however things take a wrong turn. In Lenin’s brain the Roman philosopher Seneca appears. Baritone Alexei Kochanov has audible trouble with his uncomfortable part, switching between his low and falsetto registers. He recites his lines unaffected, against a background of vocalized chords and darkly-circulating electronic sounds. Why his voice – and the ones of the other soloists – should be amplified is a mystery. It sounds distant and unnatural.

No interaction or development

None of the characters gets the opportunity to develop in any way, nor is there any interaction between them. Instead of focusing on our (all too) human actions, Octavia.Trepanation merely offers a concatenation of texts as dry as dust. Therefore it’s impossible to identify with any of the characters. Also, the supposed relationship between all those static people on stage remains completely unclear. Why does Trotsky pop up in a setting with Nero and Seneca? What does Buddha do in Lenin’s head? No idea.

Endless inertia

In his own words, while composing Kourliandski ‘lifted the skull’ from the revolutionary, originally Polish song Varshavyanka from the nineteenth century. A favourite of Lenin’s we are told. Kourliandski stretched its melody a hundred times, but to what aim? Half an hour of slowly traversing, (sometimes dissonant) sounds does not make for exciting or engaging music. The constant shifting between long-standing tones in falsetto and faster phrases in the chest voice becomes annoying. As do the seagull-like shrieks of a women’s choir that suddenly appears in Lenin’s skull. Also the soundscape of continuous ominous droning electronics is too uniform to hold our attention.

Nazi-like legionnaires

The only moment we are (slightly) moved is when the spirit of Agrippina (the mezzosoprano Arina Zvereva) appears. Haltingly, almost whispering, she bewails the murderous nature of her son Nero. Choir and electronics create a sustained tension with softly murmuring sounds. A comic element are the four legionnaires, who look a bit like firemen in their red plastic suits and helmets. With resolute, sometimes Nazi-like gestures, they keep hustling about the terracotta army and the rest of the people.

Also the three centaur skeletons pulling a cart that serves both as Agrippina’s bier and Seneca’s bath evoke a little smile.

Yet these few more flippant elements cannot save this totally undramatic opera.

Heard Thursday 15 June, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam, by Stanislavsky Electrotheatre., repeated there 16 June
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