Paysage avec Parents Eloingnés, Grand Théâtre de Genève

Raising merry hell with Heiner Goebbels

Rob Cowan
Monday 04 November 2002 01:00
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Swollen by heavy rains, Lake Evian, in Geneva, raced its course while a converted lakeside electricity station hosted the four acts and seven "suites" of Heiner Goebbels' Paysage avec parents éloignés (Landscape with Distant Relatives). The Grand Théâtre de Genève's chosen venue could hardly have been more apt: stilled machinery and huge lengths of brightly painted piping with people milling around them. This palatial building sits at the far corner of a tired industrial complex where the only other sign of life is a dimly lit nightclub. Elsewhere, graffiti and crusted brickwork await the planned march of renovation.

I was attending the premiere run of Goebbels' first opera "in the full sense of the term", to quote the programme, its predecessors having been more like stage plays. It is, though, no ordinary opera. In any case, Goebbels dislikes the genre. Paysage dispenses with a linear plot in favour of constantly changing tableaux, like "a stroll through a museum", a theatrical reduction of the cosmos, a gallery of contradictions. And it's very recent.

"I finished the score in Geneva at the beginning of October," Goebbels told me earlier, "though most of it had been written this summer. We had some rehearsals last December and they were musically quite fruitful. In the meantime, I had prepared a lot of precise sketches."

Much-needed preparation, I'd say, for a work that, while minimally dependent on improvisation ("about 10 per cent"), demands lightning reflexes of its performers. The forces called for include a baritone (the sonorous Georg Nigl), an actor (David Bennent, quite dazzling as the Comedian), 16 singers and 19 instrumentalists (Ensemble Modern under Franck Ollu) who double as costumed stage performers.

The first of Goebbels' texts summons the 16th-century philosopher and scientist Giordano Bruno; Florence von Gerkan's costumes are all blacks and Renaissance frills, and Klaus Grünberg's decor includes a back-projected ancient globe. Although lacking a linear plot, Paysage has discernible themes: the ambiguous relationship between art and reality being one, and the nature of political conflict, another. The consistently gripping score runs the gamut of styles from Renaissance tonal tapestry (incorporating early instruments) to teeth-baring aggression – a chamber-sized band wearing balaclavas, or an army of drummers raising merry hell to sentiments aroused by T S Eliot's Coriolan. Other texts are by Michaux, Fénélon, Da Vinci, Reger and Foucault, all quoted in their original languages. And there's Gertrude Stein, whose Wars I Have Seen yields spoken reminiscences of Paris in 1943, some vaguely amusing. But then, it's part of Goebbels' strategy to equalise the trite with the profound, off-loading chunks of Stein one moment, then Michaux the next.

Some scenes are disturbing. After the pounded silver drums of the "Triumphal March", huge puppets are hauled out of wooden containers, worked by the cast before being laid to rest. A little later, three model castles are casually inspected by dignitaries; one flicks a ball – a cannonball, as it turns out – and it's instant war. Among the scenes in a temple is a descending line of bells, each struck with deafening force by worshippers who stride back and forth against a roaring industrial backdrop. There's a scene with formalised disco dancing, another with a temple flautist, a Hindi chant by A R Rahman, then, most bizarrely, an Oklahoma!-style line-up for "Out Where the West Begins" and "Freight Train"; we end in the temple with a phased farewell.

Paysage avec parents éloignés is viscerally and intellectually exciting, and the production is remarkable for its fluency and impact. But it is far from comfortable. By his own admission, Goebbels was deeply affected by September 11. Even in the face of multilingual crossfire, you sense the presence of colliding cultures. The sounds and images stay with you. The idea is for us to react, speculate and reconsider, much as we have already done with Goebbels' Eislermaterial and Surrogate Cities. So, might Paysage, like its recorded predecessors, be condensed into a sound-only version, maybe in preparation for a ECM CD? "I'll decide that later," Goebbels says. "I never plan that in advance. I need some distance from the piece. The acoustic aspect has a life of its own, and I don't want to prejudge it."

In the meantime, the opera would surely raise a storm in the UK. Although the Geneva audience contained a small but, I suppose, inevitable reactionary element – the offended would spasmodically crouch and scamper for the nearest exit – the majority stayed the course and joined in a well-earned ovation.

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