It is to Ioan Holender, intendant of the Vienna State Opera, that most credit is due for the clash of talents that produced Der Riese vom Steinfeld (The Giant of Steinfeld), a newly commissioned opera by Friedrich Cerha, avant-gardist, symphonist, Berg-reclamist – his three-act completion of Lulu was staged last month at ENO – and veteran co-founder of the Viennese contemporary ensemble Die Reihe. That the Staatsoper engages with new opera is admirable enough; here it has generated, in some respects, a new masterwork to set beside the likes of Henze, Matthus and Reimann.
Cerha has already composed two operas – Baal (after Brecht) and Der Rattenfanger (Zuckmayer). His collaborator here is the leading Austrian playwright Peter Turrini, who has evolved an Austrian-slanted Jedermann from the true story of a late 19th-century boy chorister who grows to an outrageous height, only to be shunned, exploited and touted as a circus act. In a sequence of often bizarre exchanges (the Giant's encounters include a despondent Kaiser, a randy Queen Victoria and a Rabbi who foresees the holocaust) there are shades of Faust, Baron Munchausen, Peer Gynt, Mr Broucek and The Tin Drum; as also of the buffeted individualism focal to Kaiser's Expressionism, Wozzeck, La Ronde, and The Rake's Progress.
Thomas Hampson is a glorious singing vehicle for this new opera: superb-toned in set-piece ditty and note-row alike, while hoist high on platform shoes like some lumbering corn dolly. Hampson's vocal and acting talents are less than sufficiently exploited, however, by both Cerha and Jürgen Flimm, whose stage direction looked flimsy. Launched with a clumsy frontstage idea, the visuals never recovered. There were some superbly sung cameos (tenor Heinz Zednik, doubling as Rabbi and Kaiser Bill, and the beefy low tessitura of Margareta Hintermeier's voracious Queen Victoria). Michele Breedt made a sympathetic mother-figure, Anja; her duets with Hampson were a highlight (albeit slightly overborne by conductor Michael Boder). Diana Damrau produced scintillating coloratura for the girl who falls for the giant and pursues him as loyally as Goethe's Gretchen or Grete in Schreker's Der ferne Klang.
Are the potential layers explored? Not enough. Is Turrini's language invigorating? Intermittently. For all his feelings, the giant, naïve, amiable and optimistic, remains a schwarzes Loch ("black hole"). Despite lumping an alienated anti-hero at the opera's heart, the story lacks sufficient centre, unless it be Sehnsucht – this generous-hearted Elephant Man's longing for societal acceptance. When the giant's righteous anger boils over at the tormenting Tailor and Circus Owner who commercially exploit his grotesquerie, the brief explosion both looked and sounded ritually inept. Erich Wonder's backdrop design, a patchwork of Expressionistic-filmic cliché, seemed vaguely suggestive but mostly irrelevant.
So a mixed bag, yet armed with most of the crucial ingredients of great opera. A more thoughtful staging might point up the layers of Cerha's rich, evocative, Wozzeck-like instrumental interludes, the musical heart of Der Riese, which (like the central ideas of Berg's Lulu) would make a wonderful orchestral sequence.
'Der Riese vom Steinfeld' is at the Vienna State Opera 5-15 Sept