Antikrist – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by the composer, after P. E. Benzon’s Antichrist [revised 1930 version; sung in German with German and English surtitles]
Lucifer, A Voice – Kyle Miller
God’s Voice – Jonas Grundner-Culemann
The Echo of the Air of Mystery – Valeriia Savinskaia
The Air of Mystery – Irene Roberts
The Mouth speaking Great Words – Clemens Bieber
Despondency – Maire Therese Carmack
The Great Whore – Flurina Stucki
The Scarlet Beast – A. J. Glueckert
The Lie – Andrew Dickinson
Hatred – Joel Allison
Chorus & Orchestra of Deutsche Oper
Ersan Mondtag – Director & Set Designer
Annika Lu & Ersan Mondtag – Costume Designer
Rainer Casper – Lighting Designer
Rob Fordeyn – Choreography
Carolin Müller-Dohle – Dramaturgy
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 24 February, 2023
Venue: Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Rued Langgaard’s sole opera Antikrist (1921-3, revised 1926-30) – subtitled by him ‘Church Opera’ or ‘Judgment Scenes’ – was never staged in his lifetime, and wasn’t premiered until 1999 at the Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck. Based upon a poem by P. E. Benzon, and ultimately inspired by the visions of the apocalypse in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, it was intended by the composer as his comment upon what he regarded as an increasingly materialistic and egocentric society, turning away from spiritual values. The work does not comprise a typical narrative drama but unfolds as a sequence of six scenes during which the Antichrist is depicted allegorically in a number of guises. He/she/they/it never appears as a single identifiable person, but the various evils manifested are unleashed at the prompting of Lucifer, which God tolerates for a period of time (technically only represented by the composer as ‘God’s Voice’).
The work is also a more readily understandable, if idiosyncratic, response to the uncertainty and fear in the period after World War One, as totalising ideologies started to take hold politically in Europe. The allegorical figures generally tell what they stand for in elaborate, metaphorical monologues, rather than show it, so much, in dialogue or interaction with any wider cast of humans, and therefore the composition is perhaps more like an oratorio or extended cantata to that extent. Or a connection could be drawn with Vaughan Williams’s roughly contemporaneous ballet (‘masque’ as he called it) Job or his later ’morality’ (a term which could be well applied to Antikrist) The Pilgrim’s Progress – albeit that evil and tribulation are visited upon individual people in those scenarios rather than putatively upon society at large.
The connection with Job happens (presumably coincidentally) to be underlined in Ersan Mondtag’s luridly colourful production because the essentially discrete scenes are choreographically unified by the dances of a group of figures who would seem to stand in for the humankind to whom the allegorical apparitions of Antichrist direct their rhetorical appeals. Even if also accidentally, there almost seem to be occasional echoes of or parallels with Vaughan Williams’s more visionary scores such as those mentioned, with strands of melody hauntingly drawn as unison lines or chordal blocks of sound in widely spaced registers, such as also conveys the terrifically bleak landscape in the Sinfonia Antartica. But otherwise Langgaard’s musical style is largely founded upon a terser form of late Romanticism, somewhere between Wagner and Strauss, though his repetition of bold thematic motifs bears something in common with Sibelius’s elemental evocations of nature, as well as pre-empting minimalism. It is the same aural world as that of the composer’s Music of the Spheres, perhaps his best-known piece and which he partly reused in this opera.
Where Landgaard had in mind the characters and configuration of Luca Signorelli’s fresco The Preaching of the Antichrist in Orvieto Cathedral for his opera’s visual and dramatic representation of what he calls the ‘Church-Ruin of Noise’, this production also constructively draws upon other artistic representations of the Day of Judgement (which frequently depict naked, vulnerable crowds being damned to hell) and the aesthetic of Expressionist cinema from the same decade as the opera’s composition (especially such horror films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu). The sinister surrealism of both sources of pictorial references is enhanced by the vibrantly grotesque, nude forms in which most of the characters and the sporadically seen chorus appear, resembling zombies. The perspective view of a street for the set, turned up 90 degrees at the back to give a bird’s eye view also of an urban landscape, surely evokes Metropolis, although there are more minor, modern references in the picture of a motor car, and a descending New York yellow taxicab at one point with ‘Apocalypse Now’ on its top light.
Rather than fall in line with any straightforwardly Christian vision of the Last Times or doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ, the production seems to humanise the role of God by having Jonas Grundner-Culemann – who delivers the role’s spoken words not in any sense authoritatively or ex cathedra – first emerge on stage as a despairing, blood-stained stray, who then sheds his suit to become totally naked. He returns to the latter state at the end, to be comforted physically by the revived figure of the Great Whore (a dramaturgical spin on Job’s “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there” perhaps). In other words, Mondtag’s production takes seriously Lucifer’s quotation of Nietzche’s famous dictum from Die fröhliche Wissenschaft that ‘God is dead’ – paralleled in the huge naked figure which descends from time to time, with the head of the male actor of the God’s Voice though with female genitals, but otherwise suspended in deathly torpor like the crucified Christ – by representing God entirely in human form. It thereby examines what it means for humanity, in all its weakness, imperfection, and chaos, to find its own way to an accord within itself and without recourse to the Christian myth of salvation, imposed metaphysically from above. This run of performances, then, concluding here just two days into Lent, offers a stimulating reappraisal of that doctrine.
That message is convincingly conveyed by an excellent cast of singers who capture with clear, rich vocalism the declaimed, extended monologues they sing (generally more like a perversely ironic sermon). Kyle Miller is a persuasive, articulate musical presence as Lucifer, contrasting with Grundner-Culemann’s anxious, nervously projected God’s Voice. The compact between the two characters is tellingly made by having Lucifer kiss the latter, and both are dressed like clowns in broad-rimmed, striped pantaloons. Irene Roberts and Valeriia Savinskaia make a coquettishly appealing pair as the Air of Mystery and her Echo, while Flurina Stucki cultivates a warmer, more sustained sonority as the Great Whore, giving voice to the compassion she extends to the embodied form of God’s Voice here.
Clemens Bieber imparts a smoothly unflinching, believable authority to his delivery of the speech of The Mouth speaking Great Words, which in every respect sounds like a Tory manifesto for the next election (“Progress is the byword. Growth is the ground of life. Adversity strengthens the will” (for which we might read Thérèse Coffey’s suggested diet of turnips) “Struggle prepares the victory. Plans further the work. Objectives awaken deeds” and so on). Solid, articulate performances from the other parts also aid the clarity of the otherwise often highly poetic and stylised literary style of Langgaard’s libretto, though A. J. Glueckert also provides some mischievously camp fun as the Scarlet Beast.
Hermann Bäumer conducts a dependable account of the score, written for a large number of instruments, and melds its disparate elements into a cogent whole. Tension and drive are steadily developed through close attention to detail with some of the virtuosic writing for the orchestra brilliantly executed, but without making sensational musical effects, and so creating a sustained, foreboding soundscape on to which the vocal parts are fluently laid. Although this is an opera whose unconventionality is unlikely to gain it any wide appeal or regular place in the repertoire, this is a dynamic and quirkily sympathetic engagement with it, fully worth the efforts in mounting it.