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Experimental opera and intimate quartets electrify

Beethovenfest reviewed.

Bonn 2012

A bare-breasted women is held down by a group of men and brutalised with a chainsaw. Bloodied but alive, she staggers to her feet and electrocutes their leader, before repenting and joining him in a mass orgy. This is all within the first five minutes of Opera Bonn’s new production of Paul Hindemith’s expressionist triptych Murder, The Hope of Women/Sancta Susanna/The Nusch-Nuschi. If the idea of the annual Bonn Beethovenfest conjures images of polite, conservative music-making by middle-aged men in tailcoats then think again.

This isn’t to say that purists should look away now. The annual month-long season gives the festival plenty of space to amplify its core repertoire with more experimental programming, forging connection as well as opposition between the events. This year’s concept – “True Art has a Mind of its Own” – brings together music from Piazzolla, Bach, Brahms and Ligeti, jazz and folk events, a special anniversary focus on the works of John Cage, as well as a healthy seam of Beethoven. Oh, and there’s an orchestra made of vegetables.

A visit over the penultimate weekend of the 2012 Beethovenfest offers this breadth in microcosm. Out in the quiet bourgeois suburb of Bad Godesberg a whitewashed church plays host to the Borodin Quartet performing Beethoven, while back on the shores of the Rhine, Bonn’s angular opera house frames Hindemith’s youthful operatic act of rebellion.

In 1919, “the old world exploded”, as the German composer and sometime soldier Hindemith expressed it. Music, like politics, found itself in fragments, its certainties shattered and its language insufficient. While Schoenberg turned away from tonality, Hindemith stuck with it, inhabiting its hollow shell parasitelike. One early result was the trio of expressionist, one-act operas composed during the 1920s that confront issues of sexuality, violence and power and interrogate the nature of modern civilisation.

Klause Weise’s new production celebrates the distinct psychological and sound-worlds of each piece, embracing Las Vegas-style visual excess for the harems and eunuchs of The Nusch-Nuschi (named after a mythological creature), a stylised minimalism for the anti-parable Sancta Susanna and all-out symbolic chaos for Murder, The Hope of Women’s battle of the sexes.

Yet despite their differences, we never lose sight of the cynical clarity that underpins all three operas; Weise’s direction exposes the empty ritual gestures of religion, politics and sexuality that we enact in the hope of redemption. Hindemith’s scores are a revelation – the sensuous, Debussian languor of Sancta Susanna (offstage flutes offer the breathy, guttural cries of sexual release) set against the Eastern fantasy of The Nusch-Nuschi, with its metallic sheen of tuned percussion, and the heavy rhythmic tread of Murder – all efficiently, if occasionally roughly, rendered by Beethoven Orchester Bonn.
Julia Kamenik’s Die Frau might have been vanquished by Mark Morouse’s Der Mann but musically all the honours were with her rich, sensitively coloured tones. Ingeborg Greiner’s Susanna offered a devastatingly seductive invitation to join her in psychosexual freedom, ripping off her wimple along with vocal restraint. The cast for The Nusch-Nuschi relies on each grotesque cameo jangling a different nerve, and the assured musical characterisation and bravura of Weise’s action and Raimund Bauer’s sets carried us along into this feast of vulgarity.

With a direct line back to Shostakovich and an almost 70-year history, the Borodin Quartet has long since set the benchmark for German and Russian repertoire. Over three years, the ensemble will perform a complete cycle of Beethoven’s quartets at the festival and their final concert of 2012 coupled Beethoven’s early String Quartet No 5 in A Major with the mature virtuosity of the Razumovsky Quartet No 2.

There’s no messing around with the Borodins. Their authoritative approach has no time for showmanship (though the cellist Vladimir Balshin came close in the passion of the Borodin’s String Quartet No 2 in D) and all energies are directed into interior dialogue among the musicians. It couldn’t be a better exemplification of the festival’s theme of truth and directness. Music in their hands speaks for itself, and if the delicacy of the Menuetto in D Major occasionally felt a little gripped by the first violin, Ruben Aharonian, it was balanced by the subtler narrative shades of the Razumovsky.

You can go into ecstasies over the bravery of a festival that tackles a barely known trio of 20thcentury operas, that can afford to stage a concert by a celebrated quartet in the Beethoven-Haus with its mere 200 seats, but it’s an easier risk to take when over a third of your funding comes from the government. With audience capacity at around 90 per cent, Bonn’s Beethovenfest is anything but complacent. Its model might be echoed in festivals across Germany but it couldn’t translate to the UK. Yes, the Proms are subsidised and can reach 98 per cent capacity but our flagship festival benefits from a prime summer position, BBC coverage and a city with a population 25 times that of Bonn (which has fewer inhabitants than Coventry).

Then there’s the question of cultural taste. Whether it’s the black-tie opera festival in Munich or the hipster contemporary events in Berlin, classical music is an organic, integrated part of German life in a way it simply isn’t for the British. Each year journalists ask where the vast Proms audience goes during the winter. Perhaps they migrate to mainland Europe – still the classical heartland but now with an edge to its musical Gemütlichkeit.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special