With its political power games, its double mad scene – taking place in a storm no less – and that horrific eye-gouging, Shakespeare's King Lear seems to have the perfect ingredients for an opera. But unlike the other three late great tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, which have all made their way successfully into the genre several times, Lear had to wait until 1978 for German composer Aribert Reimann to finally complete the challenge.
Verdi and Britten both harboured plans to set the play to music but each abandoned the project in its early stages. It is worth pondering, then, the peculiar set of demands Lear throws up for the operatic composer. All of the late plays function through ambiguity which is capable of sustaining endless interpretation and reinterpretation; this is one of the reasons they are so successful at arousing the 'fear and pity' that Aristotle considered essential for tragedy. In the three other plays, whether it's Hamlet's interminable indecision over whether to take revenge on his uncle, Macbeth's guilty conscience gnawing away at him, or Othello's manipulation into jealous fury by Iago, the downfall of the title character follows a recognizable psychological process. Lear, by contrast, is subjected to an emotional conflict that is beyond possible human experience. This is because his predicament is imposed from the outside as a kind of thought experiment. After all, what leader ever gives up power voluntarily? Further, Lear's descent into madness is not simply impotent rage at his daughters' betrayal. Insanity brings with it a curious lucidity: perhaps he now sees things as they really are, or he sees his true self for the first time, or he realizes that his sense of self is dependent on his status. Shakespeare's poetry leaves the audience with plenty of space to guess at the nature of Lear's mental turmoil. Writing music that allows the same scope for imaginative interpretation is not going to be easy.
Reimann's solution turns Lear into a study of alienation and unavoidable disaster putting it, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the German tradition of Wozzeck and Die Soldaten. As in Wozzeck, we see the world through the madman's eyes so that he appears sane while everything else cracks and falters around him. In order to build up the necessary atmosphere of estrangement, Reimann employs three standard post-war compositional techniques: serialism, Messiaen's block form, and Ligeti's micro-polyphony. Block form (or 'static form') is designed to arrest the sense of forward movement, but Reimann is nevertheless able to use it with impressive dramatic effect.
The opening scene – where Lear offers to distribute his kingdom equally amongst his three daughters, as long as they tell him how much they love him – is a good example. In the orchestral foreground we have a distinct block of instrumental texture for each section of spoken dialogue. Goneril's hyperbolic declarations of love are accompanied by short dissonant chords in randomly varying tessitura in winds and brass; Regan's histrionic coloratura is mirrored by bassoon, clarinet and oboe filigree ornamentation. Throughout a chordal mass, started originally by Lear's intonation, continues gradually rising in the background, as in Ligeti's Atmospheres, until it is Cordelia's turn to reply. Her answer, that she will not exaggerate her love for personal profit, is greeted with sudden silence. It is a simple yet effective device.
When Goneril and Cornwall gouge out Gloucester's eyes, the stasis of the music – tom-tom ostinato, clanking bells, jabbing flute chords and alternating sustained high horn and low trombone – adds an air of grim inevitability to proceedings, just as the continual references to sight and blindness do in the Shakespeare. What makes it particularly chilling, though, is the contrast of the primitive orchestration with the shrieking of Gloucester and the cold laughter of Goneril and Cornwall.
For the storm, Reimann has avoided the nineteenth-century commonplace of whipping up the sounds of gales and thunder, already hackneyed when Wagner did it in Der Fliegender Holländer. Instead he follows the example Britten set in Peter Grimes and goes for a more abstract depiction of the emotional content for which the storm is a metaphor. This is where Shakespeare asks the big questions about self-identity and agency, and it's where Reimann imposes his own answer. Lear intones on one note, as he did when he was sovereign and in control, but unlike before the world no longer obeys him. In the first scene the orchestra followed his lead, now it darts around him, enclosing him, playing with him and ultimately isolating him. Reimann's Lear is nothing but an empty voice: it turns out in this version that he was entirely defined by his position in the hierarchy.
There is some impressive singing in this recording. Wolfgang Koch is particularly good in the title role, capturing both the commanding presence of the King at court and of the abject figure roaming the heath. The voices of the evil sisters Goneril and Regan, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and Caroline Whisnant respectively, fairly drip with malice. These parts are both difficult enough, but in terms of vocal wizardry the prize has to go to the countertenor Martin Wölfel as Edgar. He begins the opera as a tenor and then as he starts to feign madness he uses ever more falsetto notes until he becomes a countertenor. His effortless shifting between voice types while negotiating the awkward intervals that Reimann's serialism throws at him is remarkable.
No one is going to make a successful case for bringing Lear into the standard repertory. Musically it isn't original enough and it doesn't sufficiently preserve the profundity of the source material. But it has a lot going for it. The librettist crams Shakespeare's already action-filled play into a tidy two hours and Reimann imaginatively deploys his array of compositional techniques to make sure there is no let-up in the tension. The result is dramatic and, more importantly, much of the music is worth hearing for its own sake.
By Marc Brooks
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