On Tuesday 13 March the Opera Forward Festival opened with Das Floss der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) by Hans Werner Henze. This oratorio from 1968 fits in seamlessly with the theme of the third edition: Fate and Awareness. It is inspired by a true story from 1816, when the French frigate Méduse stranded on the African coast. The people on board were left to their fate; of the 154 people on board, only fourteen survived.
The French painter Théodore Géricault immortalised this tragic incident on his canvas Le radeau de la Méduse. This formed the starting point for Henze (1926-2012). His oratorio is a timeless requiem for the nameless victims who fall prey to the indifference of the privileged. The piece is directed by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, who personally worked with Henze: ‘Henze stood up for the weak from a deeply human standpoint. He was a convinced left-winger. Germany not always valued his stance.’
For a long time he was not really appreciated as a composer, either. How do you explain this?
Towards the end of the twentieth century modernism was the only truth, but Henze harked back to the past. He had his origins in composers such as Alban Berg and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. He had a great sensitivity to sound. His music originated from the theatre, from singing; singing is in itself something traditional. Unlike his contemporaries, he always sought to find beautiful melodies. He felt misunderstood in Germany, that is why he moved to Italy. There, too, his political commitment was less controversial.
Henze wrote in traditional forms, such as symphonies, operas and this oratorio, Das Floss der Medusa. Those genres are centuries old, he clearly felt comfortable with the official canon. Personally I think his music is incredibly complex, but at the same time it’s always text driven. Henze has a great sense of drama and creates strong contrasts. His music is very lyrical, always rooted in sound. Also in Das Floss der Medusa the lyrical moments are the by far the strongest.
Remarkably the role of Death is sung by a woman.
Indeed, there you have it! We say ‘Der Tod’, male; in Italian it is ‘La morte’, female. It was obvious to Henze that Death should have a woman’s voice. Death is enticing and seductive, it encircles you and provides security. He/she represents a great force in this piece, also musically. The voice of the soprano is interwoven with the strings, very suggestive and charming. Of the 154 people on board, only fourteen manage to resist her lure.
This implies that the people choose to die, yet they are victims. After all, the government doesn’t do anything to save them from their rickety raft.
Certainly, but when you are in great need there is a great temptation to throw yourself into the arms of death. Moreover, Death is a physical person in this oratorio. A woman who constantly sings: ‘Come to me. Here it is better. You are with far too many anyway.’
That call sounds ceaselessly, loud and clear, engaging, flattering. It’s interesting that Henze so strongly emphasizes this temptation. Once the people have died, they not only sing lyrics from Dante’s Inferno but also from Paradiso. Without this ambivalence, it would have been a pure protest piece, a kind of agit-prop. This gives it a deeper meaning.
Das Floss der Medusa is very topical at the moment. Immediately after the refugee crisis broke out, I thought: we must stage this piece. And Castellucci does indeed relate it to the present. He even went to Senegal, where he shot a film. I think he would love to make a live connection with the boat refugees on the Mediterranean every night. But you should ask him, it is technically impossible anyway.
It is in any case a major challenge to stage such an oratorio. But if someone can do it, then it’s Castellucci. Without lapsing into sentimentality, he wants to move people and make them think about its universal theme. In essence, of course, it is about power.
We refuse to extend a hand to the weak, the disenfranchised, the poor. While they fight for their lives, we more fortunate Europeans sit comfortably back and relax. Our first impulse is not to help, but to give up. Henze opposed this attitude throughout his life, which makes him very dear to me.
Besides the soprano, there are two male soloists, what is their role?
A baritone sings the role of Jean-Charles, the mulatto from the original story who resists Death until the end. When a ship finally comes into sight he swings a red flag, but shortly after his rescue he dies. Musically he is linked to wind instruments, harp and melodic percussion instruments. His role is extremely dramatic, we can identify with him personally.
Then there is a narrator, who calls himself Charon, the mediator between life and death. He takes people across with his boat; his objective tone creates a purposeful distance. Charon is related to the percussion in the orchestra, instruments without pitch.
Thus Henze creates three different worlds, which remain largely separated from each other. The instruments at times play simultaneously, but more often they are opposed to each other. That’s why the strings in the orchestra pit are on the left, the wind players on the right and the percussion in between.
A similar distribution can be seen on stage. At the beginning of the performance the singers of the choir are on the right. They represent the realm of the living, the 154 people on the raft, including a number of children. Then the great dying begins and the choir divides itself up. It starts with a small group of dead, who move to the left of the stage.
In the second part, a lot of time has passed and this group has grown considerably. Towards the end, two ‘solo’ choirs are formed, consisting of the 14 living and 13 dying characters. The latter group gradually becomes smaller and smaller, and ultimately only the fourteen survivors are left standing on the right. Thus the piece does not end in pure desperation: they represent our hope for a better future.
I love this messianic attitude. Henze’s work has an impressive utopian power. He wanted to shake people awake, take them out of their comfort zone. He does so excellently in Das Floss der Medusa. To be honest, I miss that explosive power in contemporary music.