Bern – Opera Magazine December 2022
Visually compelling with its stage full of post-apocalyptic silver tubular entrails and abandoned aircraft seats submerged under garbage, swathed occasionally in drifts of atmospheric white smoke, this production of Sycorax, Georg Friedrich Haas’s new work, is stark and stunning. Commissioned by Bühnen Bern and premiered in a collaboration between Bern Symphony Orchestra and Bühnen Bern Choir, this was an immersive, impressive operatic experience, seen on September 30 at the VIDMARHALLEN , directed by Giulia Giammona and designed by Anna Schöttl and Axel Aust.
Both the beginning and the ending of Sycorax emerged from darkness, the sonic purity, shaping and reshaping of strings propelling the audience into the opera’s deeply crafted and expertly conceptualized workings. Embedded at the outer edges of the performance space, male and female voices, cloaked in darkness opposite one another, emerged as a primordial, other-worldly force. Voices combined with strings, elegantly coaxed and shaped by the Dutch conductor Bas Wiegers: we were held fast within this soundworld until our release, 80 minutes later.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is deftly traced in Harriet Scott Chessman’s libretto. The purity in textual nuance underpinning a magical, post-colonial envisioning of this well-known story. Placed in a dystopian, mystical island setting, Chessman’s spare use of language is potent when paired with Haas’s magisterial blocks of texture and colour.
Sycorax (Mollena Lee Williams-Haas) describes to Caliban (Thando Mjandana) how they came to the island—‘We bundled you up, and we bundled your sister’ but ‘your sister slipped and fell, eaten by the sea’. The five-strong cast is completed by Prospero (Robin Adams), Miranda (Juliane Stolzenbach Ramos) and Ariel (Mengqi Zhang) but it is Sycorax who propels the narrative forwards, her spoken text blending seamlessly with the more conventionally driven operatic styles of the other characters. Over the last decade the composer has been developing a persuasive re-drawing of the spoken narrative within classical framings, in collaboration with Williams-Haas, who has been central to and influential on much of his work.
Haas’s compositional palette is as if Rothko’s paintings have been transplanted to sound, encoded instrumentally and vocally. There are cascades, multitudes of textures, deployed in block formation. In this subtle, all-encompassing experience, each block has its own independent journey, demanding precise execution from every performer.
This is opera in which conventionally conceived melodic lines are gloriously absent, drawing on an understanding of its classical heritage but in many ways overturning key formulaic components of operatic constituent parts. The ingredients are broken down and reassembled into a viscerally dramatic experience, audience and performers bound together as one, vigilant attention to dramatic and musical form not asked of, but compelled of us.
The direct nature of Chessman’s text was in perfect balance, intersecting in spellbinding fashion with the ominous and brooding quality of Haas’s dense sonic palette. Rose Dodd