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S&H Opera Review

Gerd KÜHR Stallerhof Lucerne Theatre November 2001-12 January 2002 (PGW)

Oper von Gerd Kühr.

Musikalische Leitung: Wolfgang Müller-Salow Regie: Frank Hilbrich Bühne: Hugo Gretler Kostüme: Ines Rastig Dramaturgie: Ute Haferburg Chor: Wolfgang Müller-Salow Mit: Vojtech Alicca; Rita Anton; Alberto Fasulo; Johannes M. Kösters; Brigitte Kuster; Elisabeth Rolli; Annette Stricker; Miriam Timme; Chor des luzernertheater, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester

For an English speaker it is not easy to write about this opera, receiving its first performances in Switzerland, but important to do so.

Gerd Kühr (b.1952) studied in Salzburg and later with Hans Werner Henze. A 'portrait concert' was devoted to him in the Salzburg Festival 2000, and he is now composer in residence to the Vienna Symphony Chamber Orchestra. Stallerhof, composed in 1988 and premiered at the Munich Biennale, is the first of Kühr's three operas, and shows remarkable dramatic flair. It has been shown widely in Germany and Austria and this is its first production a little further afield.

I chanced at Lucerne upon Stallerhof, based upon a dialect play that caused a furore in 1972 because of its stark and shocking treatment of taboo subject matter, and saw it without foreknowledge or preparation. Normally text is important to me. I like to 'do my homework' with libretti and I am a strong supporter of surtitles in the opera house, even for opera in English. I have however never been less troubled than on this occasion by my inability to follow the words of a complex, many layered opera in a foreign language.

Franz-Xaver Kroetz 's Stallerhof deals with stunted emotions in a dysfunctional, impoverished rural home. A small farmer is unable to relate to his wife, nor can either of them do so in any positive way to their 14 yr old mentally retarded daughter, Beppi. The central characters are Sepp (Johannes Kosters), a lonely and sexually frustrated seasonal worker, who rapes and befriends Beppi (Elisabeth Rolli), their developing mutual friendship showing the only tenderness on display. That illicit relationship is, of course, doomed.

The girl's pregnancy leads to Sepp's eviction from the household and to Beppi's father killing Sepp's dog (his only steady companion) as a warning in case he should show up again. Murder of the bastard baby, and even that of the erring girl herself, is considered. An abortion is prepared, but the mother finds the procedure too distasteful to complete and father muses that he had always wanted a son - -. There is a vein of fantasy alongside this sordid reality.

The final scene has Beppi's pregnancy going to term and delivery, with the child/mother calling for Mama, just as does the naughty child at the end of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges.

With translation assistance, I was able to fill in the background afterwards. The author Kroetz explains that Stallerhof is about people whose problems lie so far back and are so entrenched that they can no longer be expressed in words. For the introverted characters of his imagination, language is not that important. We are to observe their demeanour and body language. For the most part a Society which takes no account of such people, and leaves them in their silence, is to blame. They always busy themselves with something; 'work therapy' has reconciled them to being virtually 'deaf and dumb' emotionally.

Kroetz believes the way people walk & behave is just as important in theatre as dialogue; 'silences have the character of truth'. Despite this, the language of his protagonists, with their limited vocabulary, is precise; they express themselves in a local dialect, a closed language (in the opera the Bayern dialect is replaced by normal German).

Kroetz's Stallerhof is a work about inability to communicate, which opens space for music. Gerd Kühr's music serves the function of expressing the feelings and situations in which people find themselves. With a fairly large chamber orchestra he provides a rich tapestry of colours and motives. There is expressionist music, which brings to mind. the inarticulacy and exploitation suffered by Wosseck. The Lucerne staging also reminded me of the stylised settings and abusive family relationships seen in the presentation of Turnage's the Huddersfield Festival. Stallerhof is an opera of comparable calibre to those.

Despite her misery and harsh treatment, Peppi's naïve, melancholy innocence is given a certain brightness with solo violin, flute and harp. Sepp has a bass clarinet as orchestral alter-ego. Their emerging closeness is reflected by exchanging flute for alto flute, and bass clarinet for alto clarinet, bringing the tones closer whilst keeping the voices intact. Both these key characters are depicted sympathetically. Life has hardened Sepp into a state of resignation. He has hard traits, which must not be erased, but he is not a monster or sadist; his music is dark. Beppi's parents are less strongly characterised and not so clearly represented thematically, an oboe relates to the father and a recurring rhythmic sequence for the mother.

In Frank Hilbrich's striking and economical staging the four protagonists are often locked in separate, sparsely furnished compartments and, additionally, there is a chorus of three characters dressed identically as nuns, who punctuate the main action and represent the Ten Commandments, which are comprehensively broken by all these damaged people. The production is riveting, with admirable acting and singing, most notably Elisabeth Rolli's depiction of the damaged daughter, childlike and unaware of the significance of life around her. The Lucerne Symphony Orchestra under Wolfgang Müller-Salow gives a thoroughly assured account of the complex score.

It was brave to mount Stallerhof in a small city like Lucerne, with minimal publicity and apologetic box office staff who warned us that it is 'modern'! The emphasis in the UK on new British commissions, new composers and premieres can lead to the disappearance of worthier candidates for international recognition; operas, like good wines and whiskies, may need time to mature and settle before travelling.

Eighteen months ago I wrote about the 1998 recording of the Swedish composer Carl Unander-Scharin's opera The King of Fools (1995-96), which deals with treatment and recovery from seemingly incurable schizophrenia, "Do not be put off by a subject which might seem unappealing. This is a wonderful conception, marvellously realised, absorbing throughout and moving too - once heard, never forgotten. It should be considered seriously for UK production, maybe at the Huddersfield or Almeida festivals?"

I would say exactly the same of Stallerhof, and urge that this portable production should be brought to one of those same festivals or, possibly, to the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio in London. Stallerhof deserves now to be seen outside central Europe.

Stallerhof plays at Lucerne Theatre until 12 January 2002 and is available on CD, conducted by the composer, on Universal MA 445 305-2 .

Peter Grahame Woolf


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