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.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'