Pilgrim's progress through space

'Slaughterhouse 5': you've read the book and seen the movie. Now Munich gets to hear the opera. By Della Couling
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 became a kind of cult novel in the 1970s, spawning many imitations. A not immediately obvious spin-off is an operatic version but, after Hans-Jurgen von Bose's masterly setting, premiered earlier this month at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the only surprise is that no one had thought of it before. So it goes (as Vonnegut himself would say).

The novel's leaps back and forth in time and space, from 1968 to 1945 and points in between, via a time-warp detour to the planet Tralfamadore, are a gift not only to the composer (who wrote his own libretto), but also to his director (Eike Gramss) and set designer (Gottfried Pilz). And, by superimposing actions which are, of necessity, consecutive on the printed page, Von Bose achieves the considerable feat of making the work's meaning clearer.

The slaughterhouse of the title is, of course, the building in which a group of American prisoners end up in Dresden on the night of the Allies' blanket-bombing of the city. As in the novel, this event provides the apocalyptic climax to the opera. But it begins with its main protagonist in his older form, Billy Pilgrim II (a brilliant performance by Uwe Schonbeck), a tubby personification of the Little Man, in suit and glasses, shuffling timidly on to the still-curtained stage, carrying a microphone. At first, he was taken to be one of those harbingers of doom who come on to announce that the prima donna is indisposed, but his shy writhings and inability to begin telling his own story soon dispelled that idea. And so we have the man. But the progress of this pilgrim is fuelled less by growing enlightenment than by alien forces - terrestrial or otherwise: in Act 2, the chorus of Tralfamadorians are dressed as punks.

Narrative links are provided at either side of the stage by Evangelist I (Claes H Ahnsjo) and Evangelist II (Ronald Pries), the first a tenor in vaguely clerical dress, singing a brilliant take-off of Bach recitative, often underlined by woodwind or organ, the second a middle-aged smarmy chat-show-host type, speaking his lines.

The stage is divided horizontally and vertically, using strobe lights against a black background, with some stunning images, including bombers and flying saucers. This also offers the opportunity for ensemble passages between characters in different situations. So when, on one level, the Tralfamadorian little green men have carried Billy off to their planet to study him, while, on another, a German guard is seen kicking an American soldier, a quasi- Beethovenian ensemble ensues in which the earthlings separately ask "Why you? Why me?" then all together answer "Because things just are as they are", but prompted by very different circumstances.

Like Billy Pilgrim, Von Bose's music hovers between different eras, aiming at a synthesis of postmodern, modern and past, in an effort to achieve meaningful progress, but with a clear yearning back to the 18th century. He is certainly an adroit musician, able to write in any given style, with the two Trafalmadorians (mezzo and counter-tenor) also singing mock- Bach when flying in their saucer, and Billy Pilgrim's nagging shrew of a daughter (Frances Lucey) tossing off bursts of Mozartian coloratura. There is some very lush orchestration, particularly during the purely orchestral depiction of the fire-bombing of Dresden (when the stage is blacked out). Von Bose is lucky here in Paul Daniel, who conducted a brilliant and dedicated reading of the score.

There are moments of humour, inevitably involving comic Englishmen: when Billy I (sung by Martin Gantner) and his fellow Americans end up in a camp full of British officers, camp is the operative word, with the Limeys speaking in Asterix-inspired German slang (ie "Alter Junge" for "Old boy") and breaking into cod G&S. All good fun. But the underlying tone of the opera - as of the novel - is serious, anchored in the Bach Passion-style narrative of Evangelist I. Billy Pilgrim is the victim, unwitting, unwilling and powerless: "Where can I sleep?" he sings, victimised by his fellow prisoners. Some sections could do with judicious pruning, such as a Cinderella drag act for the English officers, but here is one new opera that really should enter the repertoire.