Ideally, one would attend the world premiere of a demanding new opera in a state of clairvoyant attention, but acts of Gods take their toll—we are speaking of weather delays, and the domino effect of subsequent missed connections—and allowances must be made. At that, Wolfgang Rihm's Dionysos, subtitled Scenes and Dithyrambs, and categorized by the composer as an "opera fantasy" may have fared better under suboptimal receptive conditions than a conventionally narrative work might have done. The material as gleaned from the libretto left plenty of room for bewilderment under the best of circumstances.
In my fugue state, I had the strangest feeling of watching a contemporary gloss on Wagner's epic Ring des Nibelungen. Like Wagner's myth, Rihm's phantasmagoria begins with nymphs teasing and taunting a tantalized male. In the Ring, that would be Alberich. Here, he is N., the initial a transparent allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche, from whose writings the composer has cut and pasted together his free-associative libretto. Some of Nietzsche's "words" formed real sentences. "Was blickst du wieder/mit schadenfrohen Götter-Blitz-Augen?," would be a random but typically dithyrambic example ("What makes you look/this way again with gloating god-lightning eyes?"). But for long stretches they are just individual words, no more distinctive than "Sprich!" or "Sterne" or "Zukunft!" ("speak!," "stars,""future!"). Thus the patterns in the tapestries, for long stretches, are decidedly the composer's.
Like Alberich, N. is the dark shadow of a figure of light—Wotan in the Ring, here a mysterious individual called The Guest, and sometimes Apollo. At the far end of the two-act, three-hour journey, N. is flayed, and his skin—"Die Haut"—appears, as it were in the flesh, portrayed by an actor who mimes N.'s singing. Wagner chose different imagery for recognition of ultimate human knowledge, but arguably his and Rihm's ideas of love and redemption do converge. The Brünnhilde in Rihm's s constellation would have to be Ariadne, the princess who showed her lover the way out of the labyrinth and here embraces the stripped-off, still living Skin, but I have probably just taken this analogy one step too far. Mind you, the Nietzsche-Wagner connection is neither of my making nor of RIhm's: Wagner weighed on Nietzsche's mind and spirit as heavily as the watchful troll on the breast of the anguished sleeper of Henry Fuseli's iconic painting The Nightmare (http://www.artchive.com/artchive/F/fussli/fuseli_nightmare.jpg.html).
Rihm's score, played by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin rapturously led by Ingo Metzmacher, combines lush romance and the anchors of clear, triadic harmonies with freeform flights of savagery. Seldom less than intriguing, the results are often intoxicating, haunted by such monsters Goya saw swarming from the Sleep of Reason (http://www.artchive.com/artchive/G/goya/goya_sleep_of_reason.jpg.html).
Pierre Audi directed, but it was the artist Jonathan Meese who gave the production its savage, energetic stamp, variously reminiscent of Duchamp, Ensor, and Basquiat, with a soupçon of Tinseltown thrown in for good measure. Martin Eidenberger's videos complemented the built scenery to perfection: as simple an effect as a flurry of dots of "snow" falling on steep, sharply pyramidical moving mountains created theatrical magic of a high order. And it would be interesting to know how what appeared to be a live feed from the lobby managed to look at the same time so grainy and so three-dimensional.
For the cast, only the highest praise will do. The baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle as N. and the tenor Matthias Klink as The Guest/Apollo betrayed not an instant's insecurity in their huge, demanding assignments. More than that, they shaped their parts with the kind of freedom and imagination that typically comes only with prolonged experience of a role. The stratospheric soprano Mojca Erdmann was no less impressive as Ariadne. Coached by Jörn H. Andresen, the Vienna State Opera Chorus rose to the challenge of sound effects very far from their normal fare with total authority.
The ovations were loud and long for all concerned, and not a boo was heard. At a guess, Dionysos will find its niche on the festival circuit, but an encore at this level will be long in coming.