CD Review: “Dark Spring” by Oehms Classics

(Photo credit: Hans Jörg Michel)

Hans Thomalla’s third opera ‘Dark Spring’ – the others being ‘Fremd’ and ‘Kaspar Hauser’ – was premiered by Mannheim Opera in autumn 2020 and recorded by Oehms Classics during its five performances. Since November, a recording has been available online and on CD. It is this recording that is currently being examined.

This work depicts four young people who have grown up under the pressures of modern life. Israeli mezzo-soprano Shachar Lavi sang the role of Wendla, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anna Hybiner appeared as Ilse, Australian tenor Christopher Diffey sang Melchior, and the role of Moritz was played by the counter- Sudanese tenor Magid El-Bushra. The Nationaltheater-Orchester Mannheim was directed by Alan Pierson, while Barbora Horáková Joly was production manager and Cordula Demattio supervised dramaturgy.

The opera is actually a cycle of dramatized songs, yet another example of the interesting modern musical hybrid known as ‘opera-song’. In performance it runs continuously, but the various numbers work just as easily as stand-alone musical pieces that often hover above the incidents one would assume to inspire or mirror the words.

You probably need some degree of visual clarification, and there’s a video of the production on Vimeo. Here you can see how the direction by Horáková Joly, the design by Annemarie Bulla and the video by Sergio Verde, as well as the portable “images” of the cast and crew, not only added an extra dimension , but a more concrete definition to this coming-of-age story. The production stills in the CD booklet also reflect the degree of theatricality involved.

Conductor Alan Pierson, a colleague of German-born composer Hans Thomalla at the Bienen School of Music in Illinois, speaks appreciatively of Thomalla’s music in the insert booklet. “Songforms reminiscent of American popular music…ostinatos that wouldn’t be out of place in the music of Reich or John Adams…extended instrumental techniques that reflect Hans’ love of sound-oriented European composers like Sciarrino and Lachenmann. It’s easy to see why Pierson would get excited. The score is virtuosic, encompassing in a single work many recent forms ranging from the challenging to the catchy: “First it was GOAT’S milk, and/ then it was BEER. Exceptionally detailed and multicolored – at one point there is a combination of solo cello, high bass, jazz brush on snare drum and electronic sound (“Romantic Strings” which turns into “Vinyl Crackle”) – it is beautifully performed and recorded and deserves repeated listening. Scoring shouldn’t be difficult for those with conservative ears. Even the semi-tonal clashes between singers and their accompaniments at key moments are pleasing: ‘exquisite’ is a word that comes to mind.

All four actors are excellent. There is a lot of color and character differentiation in their renditions, especially in the scenes performed by Wendla (Lavi) and Moritz (El-Bushra). “Melchior Gabor once told me he didn’t believe in anything,” Wendla sings in a song – essentially an aria – that begins with a caress, momentarily enriches the line “He told me he doesn’t did not believe that we had to sing”, before flowing back to the colorless effective on “even of sorrow”. A beautiful feeling of disappointment emerges from his vocal coloring.

“Moritz decides to end his life” writes playwright Demattio in his printed synopsis of part three, and El-Bushra’s declamation on a phrase like “There was nothing here I could afford to hold back against hope”, and of course his howling over the word “dark”, expresses his fatal feeling of alienation.

All four singers exhibit crisp, clear diction, which is fortunate when the words are compressed, as with Melchior’s “There’s–nosuchthingas–love”. And the ability of the four singers to find expressive flexibility in a score that must be difficult to pitch and time precisely is admirable. One thinks of the continuous exchange of thoughts between Ilse (Hybiner) and Wendla (Lavi) in “Melchior Gabor…”

It is perhaps in the orchestration and the ensemble work of the orchestra that the pleasure of the work can be most savored. Just note the delicate change in meter just before “Do you remember…” Even something as simple as a quiet snare drum roll builds suspense under Moritz’s longing “Give me your hand, Melchior an indication of his growing alienation.

The game is great. Conductor Alan Pierson skilfully manages the score. But what about meaning?

Just by listening to the score in a single audience, it can be difficult to understand what is happening: I have listened several times. “There’s a dryad in the tree,” Melchior sings at one point. That’s weird for a 21st young century to say. On reflection, he seems to be referring to Wendla that he can hold “in one name.” Moritz passes his exams, then he fails. How is it possible ? Wendla’s first lines: “This dress is not too short. What do do you want?” to seem off the mark and not aimed at anyone. It’s almost like there’s someone else fueling the question.

And, in a sense, originally there was.

“Dark Spring”, with text prepared by Thomalla and elegant lyrics by Joshua Clover, is based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play “Frühlings Erwachen” (The Awakening of Spring). The story is tragic: teenagers try to deal with sexual awakening in a repressed bourgeois Lutheran society where adults are unable to guide them. In the play, the question “What do you want?” (“Was willst du den!”) was that of Frau Bergmann, expressing her frustration at not being able to keep up with the growth of her teenage daughter Wendla.

In Thomalla and Clover’s conception, there are no adults: no parents with their heads in the sand, no oppressive clergy, no teachers expelling Melchior for preparing a sex manual for Moritz.

Fair enough, Thomalla’s adaptation is about slightly older people who are dealing with modern issues – addiction, identity, “the pressure to surpass academics, achieve popularity and ‘perform’ in ways romantic or sexual” (words of Thomalla) against more insidious influences than those described by Wedekind.

But, now just steps away from Wedekind’s specific incidents, it’s as if nebulous forces are propelling the characters into this “extreme pressure to achieve” and other behaviors. Characters fight the environment – Thomalla writes of “late capitalism’s demands for permanent self-optimization” – rather than people. Without convincing responses from adults, many reactions from young people seem to be self-alienation, a series of ‘own goals’.

And lines taken out of their original context and juxtaposed pointillistically in a new one can be confusing; or, at least, they intrigued me at first. “Great – God – in the sky!” exclaims Wendla – it’s spoken – after Ilse explains “You have to love a man.” But what caused the explosion? The line is that of Wedekind, but here it seems that some beats are missing. She asked Melchior to beat his. For what reason?

Certainly, the text was enough to inspire Thomalla’s good music, but is it possible that an audience who simply listens in one sitting and strives to concentrate and understand does not have time to savor the musical fulfillment that this edition of Wedekind’s text has inspired? All of this seems a far cry from the Verdian principle of putting the audience, as critic Matthew Gurewitsch once said, “sharply in the picture.” Cue the program booklet or the director, or at least the added definition of a production.

Admittedly, Wedekind’s play is allusive at first. Mother Schmidt, for example, isn’t even mentioned in Wedekind’s cast list, but the sound of her knock on the Bergmanns’ door is enough to tell us that she came to have an abortion on Wendla, who will die from the consequences of the botched operation.

Does the loss of this context matter? And to what extent should an opera be specific or concrete? It’s worth noting that the production itself put the adults back inside — through documentary-style interviews with four “parents” — during the orchestral interludes.

But, after all, it is too a cycle of songs, and it’s possible to think of the songs as poetic reflections on the substrate of an updated plot for an audience that’s already in the know, ready to work a little harder to deduce, or who likes to savor the different potentials of meaning. Thomalla himself says, “Beneath the surface of the song’s objectified patterns, an almost raw, undomesticated sonic world simmers… which erupts at crucial plot points – a sonic world of noise, screams and silence.

Sonically, Thomalla’s work has an appealing ending. But if it’s happiness, it’s because he’s ambivalent or resigned. “Be cheerful, Wendla, be cheerful.” But how can she be cheerful after all that has crossed and she’s interrupted by the “What difference does it make?”

Yet he is still beaming. “I want to cross the meadows at dusk…” sings Wendla (Lavi) in another of those moments where Thomalla lets a voice shine, and on a melodic line whose beauty endures after the last bars.

There are other Wedekind sets – Alban Berg’s 2006 award-winning rock musical “Lulu” and Alban Berg’s “Spring Awakening” – but perhaps Thomalla’s musically satisfying “Dark Spring” raises considerations. interesting in the perennial debate about the relative importance of music and words, both poetic and dramatic.

Jack L. Goldstein