Bach in a dolls house
This article is from 2009.
'I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.' Virginia Woolf's sentiment is one the characters in Actus tragicus might well understand - though her black humour would probably be lost on them.
Filling the stage is an impressive giant dolls house cut open for our viewing – ‘we’ being the adult curtain-twitchers opposite, rather than children at play. The thirty or so lives on display range from the tedious (the countertenor in drag (Kai Wessel) irons shirts in a third floor room) to the desperate (a man on the ground floor contemplates a dangling noose, inserting and withdrawing his head). The magnificent dying bass soloist (Shigeo Ishino) staggers about clutching his chest, while a white-gloved Death figure lurks nearby.
Actus tragicus is a theatrical staging of six Bach cantatas by the late German director Herbert Wernicke, brought to Edinburgh by Opera Stuttgart. The cantatas – invariably concerned with God's omnipotence and Man's vanity – were composed for church services. Performed three hundred years later at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, they are just one element in a theatrical synthesis.
This is not an opera: Bach never wrote one. The action we see is not in tune with any narrative within the cantatas; rather it is a surreal ‘visualisation’ of the life they address, as interpreted by a modern-day director.
There is now a disjunction between the singers’ tragic utterances and mundane preoccupations. 'My life has no other purpose than to die blessed,' laments the solo tenor (Michael Nowak), between the acts of compulsive wrist watch-checking. His is not a life 'lived to the full', but lived with a petty urgency. His solos reveal an understanding of life’s futility, yet he bides his time busily.
In the same cantata, the soprano (Simone Schneider) wishes – between applying and re-applying her make-up – ‘Oh, if only I were in heaven already!' The words sound disingenuous on her painted lips: why does she insist on the rituals of dressing if she knows it’s all pointless?
Of all the oppositions Actus tragicus throws up – life and death; secular and sacred; theatre and music – perhaps the most important is that between what the church preaches and what lay people do. The hypocritical lives that populate this building seem the consequence of a religion that expects too much of its followers.
At the end of the second cantata Wer weiss, wie nah emir mein Ende? BWV27 (‘Who knows how near is my end?’), the disparate residents find comfort in coming together as a choir. A deep blue, almost as sublime as their music, shines through the windows behind them: ‘World, Adieu! I am weary of you!’, they sing. But I’m not entirely sure they mean it.