Tragic endeavours: Staatsoper Stuttgart’s Actus Tragicus

  • The List
  • 21 August 2009

This article is from 2009.

Tragic endeavours: Staatsoper Stuttgart’s Actus Tragicus

As the curtain goes up on Staatsoper Stuttgart’s Actus Tragicus, Carol Main lifts the lid on what makes this one of the EIF’s must-see events

Actus Tragicus. A presentation of tragedy. With that title, Stuttgart Opera’s production is hardly going to be a bundle of laughs. Yet, the sheer beauty of the Bach cantatas, which lie at the heart of this highly unusual synthesis of music and drama, give certain confidence that Actus Tragicus will be one of the most intense and deeply affecting events of this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Set within a cross-section of a four-storey building, the mundane, repetitive, everyday tasks and events of people’s lives can be seen in stark reality, with death an overshadowing presence all around them.

Opening just a day after the Bach at Greyfriars series, featuring around twenty cantatas from Johann Sebastian’s total output of over 200 comes to a close, Actus Tragicus is a combination of six sacred cantatas, which draw together to form one theatrical whole. The funeral cantata known as Actus Tragicus – ‘Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit BWV 106 (God’s time is the best of all)’ – is the only one of the six which can be heard in straight concert performance, as well as being part of the opera. The production was created by opera director Herbert Wernicke who died, tragically, in 2002; thankfully his two main successors dramaturg Albrecht Puhlmann and conductor Michael Hofstetter bring it to Edinburgh.

‘In this picture of human life, there is a desire to reach some sense of redemption’, says Puhlmann, ‘but there is no possibility of belief in the resurrection. That’s why you see at the bottom of the house a plastic copy of Hans Holbein’s very graphic corpse of Christ waiting for his resurrection. He’s been lying there for over 2000 years and, in a way, is forgotten by the people in the building living above him.’
In the Holbein painting, ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’, the artist depicts the dead Jesus as having suffered in the same way as an ordinary human. His body is decomposing and emaciated. ‘The people in the house above,’ says Puhlmann, ‘are living their lives as mortals, but are unaware of other things around them.’

The characters in the house are numerous. There are over 50 different personas on stage, ranging from a nurse to a thief, a boy playing with a ball and a couple about to make love, all of them with fixed choreography for their actions. ‘It is about death, and vanity, and about life,’ says Hofstetter, who says that he has never conducted anything like this before. ‘Everyone is an individual, but repeating his personal activity in a neurotic way,’ he says. ‘They perform one action throughout the whole evening. Even if you come to see this show ten times, you won’t have seen everything that is going on. Something different is going on in every window, in every room.’ A family is eating supper in one space, in another is a celebration of Christmas, there is a postman, a policeman and a mother doing the ironing. Dress is just what people wear to do these things - jeans, sweaters, trousers, work uniforms.

‘On one hand, you are seeing modern people fulfilling the rituals of everyday life,’ says Puhlmann, ‘but the baroque music of Bach is a kind of protection against our hectic, global existence in a fascinating combination of Bach’s music and our prosaic lives. It is a sort of baroque theatre, using allegories for the characters. For instance, the character of vanity, a young lady looking for the right skirt, is very important. We have performed many performances of Actus Tragicus in Stuttgart and it is always sold out. People are deeply moved by it.’

Musically, the cantatas are performed as they are written, apart from the last one, Actus Tragicus. ‘There is only a little manipulation here,’ explains Puhlmann. ‘After the hallelujah and amen, Herbert Wernicke has arranged the music with the middle section repeated so that it ends with the question of hope and redemption. Man has to die, but musically it is then left open. Will Jesus come or won’t he? It is unresolved. Actus Tragicus is more than a nice evening at the theatre. The whole evening stops with a question.’

Stuttgart Opera has received many plaudits for Actus Tragicus and rightly so. They are one of the longest established opera choruses in Germany, founded in the early 18th century, and, in more recent times, they have been awarded the title of Opera Chorus of the Year by the magazine Opernwelt on at least seven different occasions. ‘They sing it all by heart,’ says Hofstetter and really are a very good choir indeed.’ In their repetitive situations, the baroque texts they are singing, such as “how rapid and easily passing is man’s life”, or “and even children in the cradle in sickness lie with bitter anguish” take on fresh understanding. ‘The words are beautiful’, says Hofstetter, ‘but, like the beauty of Shakespeare, can also be cruel. They are very direct, but heartfelt, and deeply metaphysical.’

Bach never wrote any operas. In his lifetime, the sort of boundaries that exist today between light music and serious music were paralleled between sacred and profane. Profane was for the theatre, but Wernicke has brought Bach’s sacred music onto the stage. ‘Actus Tragicus steps over a border,’ says Hofstetter. ‘At the end, it sends shivers up the spine. I don’t know how or why, but it works.’

Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 473 2000, Fri 4 & Sat 5, 7.15pm, £14–£64

Actus Tragicus

A striking musical and theatrical experience that brings to life the minutiae and repetition of human behaviour as fifty members of the award winning Staatsoper Stuttgart Choir perform separate, interweaving pieces of sacred music by Bach within the cross section of a four storey building. A staged production sung in…

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