Chaya Czernowin: smoldering emotions under chill surface in opera Heart Chamber

A woman and a man seated at considerable distance from each other stare into space, silent and blank. The image immediately brings to mind the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, but Heart Chamber deals with the very recognizable uncertainties of being or falling in love. This fourth opera by the Israeli-American Chaya Czernowin was premiered at Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2019 and recently released on DVD.

The opera opens with a double bass player (Uli Fussenegger) filmed from above, conjuring an admirable arsenal of creaks, squeaks and plops from his instrument. The orchestra joins in almost imperceptibly with equally indefinable sounds produced by physical instruments and electronics.

Still from Heart Chamber (c) Michael Trippell

Czernowin creates a mysterious soundscape that seamlessly connects to the feelings of oppression which enthrall the two protagonists for almost an hour and a half. In their impotence to reach each other they stammer hushed, disjointed sentences; only rarely do we hear a shard of melody. The atmosphere of powerlessness is reinforced by the chorus of voices, whose whisperings, rasping breaths and screeching glissandi give voice to a range of fears.

The man (the baritone Dietrich Henschel) and the woman (the soprano Patrizia Ciofi) are only referred to as ‘he’ and ‘she’. On a split screen we see film footage of their getting ready for the day: she puts on her coat, he walks through a corridor with a briefcase. They both descend a flight of stairs and make their way onto the street.

Then the focus switches back to the stage, where people seem to be entering an underground railway station via a white staircase. The woman drops something – the music stops abruptly and the people freeze in their pose. In slow motion, the man hands her the lost object. After this first meeting both walk on uncomfortably.

Their contact will remain tense and fraught throughout the entire opera. In a seemingly random succession of situations Czernowin questions conventional views on love relationships, purposely abstaining from a clear narrative.

The hapless couple seem trapped in their loneliness, every attempt at rapprochement is brutally cut short. Especially by the woman, who seems terrified to enter into a relationship. She shrieks in fear when the man comes too close and abruptly slams a door in his face. – Yet at another moment she awkwardly covers his shoulders in a tentative gesture of consolation.

Two alter-egos (the alto Noa Frenkel and the baritone Terry Wey) circle the main characters like shadows and help to convey their distress. They also represent the clichés of a successful romance, for instance when they idyllically drink a glass of wine in a meadow. Less innocent references to standard expectations are visualized by extras behind the windows of the modernist bungalow: a woman cradling a baby in her arms, a little boy waving at the woman, who tries to reach him in vain.

Because there is no recognizable story or true interaction, the protagonists remain somewhat abstract. In his direction Claus Guth captures the oppressive atmosphere with sombre lighting; the bungalow’s forbidding architecture aptly underpins the lack of warmth that permeats the opera.

Underneath the chill of it all the music of Heart Chamber burns with a suppressed fire, making the smoldering emotions palpable. Czernowin’s dense, sustained sound textures and haunting murmurings keep one spell-bound from start to finish. The charged score is flawlessly performed by the musicians, singers and soloists of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Hats off to composer Chaya Czernowin and conductor Johannes Kalitzke.

Liked my review? My blog is listed one of 60 best classical music blogs worldwide on Feedspot. Support, however small, is welcome through PayPal (friends option), or transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. Thanks!


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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2 Responses to Chaya Czernowin: smoldering emotions under chill surface in opera Heart Chamber

  1. Thea Derks says:

    Hi Clare, glad you liked my review. Czernowin is a professor at Harvard.


  2. Clare Shore says:

    Hi, Thea! I just read your wonderfully detailed review of the opera ‘Heart Chamber.’ Thank you for introducing me to Chaya Czernowin’s work. I am somewhat familiar with her last name but not sure what country she lives in.

    Liked by 1 person

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