Opera Reviews
27 March 2017
Untitled Document

Der Meister und Margarita comes home



by Tony Cooper
Höller: Der Meister und Margarita
Hamburg State Opera
September 2013

Photo: Jörg LandsbergYork Höller's two-act opera, Der Meister und Margarita, based upon Mikhail Bulgakov's highly-rated and compelling novel of the same name, was originally commissioned by Hans Zender, General Music Director of the Hamburg State Opera, but the world première was actually given by Opéra national de Paris on 20th May 1989 following Herr Zender's term of office being cut short through a shift (and fallout) on artistic policy.

Therefore, this new Hamburg production is a 'homecoming' of the work and Höller who attended the first night, I understand, was very moved and delighted to see a new production of his only opera after a long interval of 23 years.

Currently, Höller holds the post of Professor of Composition at the Hochschule für Musik Köln where he had studied composition, piano and conducting. He also worked with Pierre Boulez in the 1970s and studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen succeeding him as artistic director of the WDR-Studios für elektronische Musik in 1990. Harbouring such a pedigree as this gives a strong indication of the direction in which his work developed ranging from electronic to serial music and the score to Der Meister conjured up the best in him. Höller also wrote the libretto for the work.

Many stage adaptations have been produced of Der Meister while some 15 or so composers have turned the work into a piece of music theatre but Höller's stamp on Bulgakov's novel must surely rank among the best after this showing. It makes you wonder why it's not more often performed.

Written between 1928 and 1940 it was not until 1966 that the novel got into print when the first part appeared in the Moscow-based magazine, Moskva, founded in 1957 as an organ of the RSFSR Union of Writers. Weaving together art and religion, satire and realism, history and contemporary social values, Der Meister's acidic and biting satire on Soviet political life hit the mark from its outset and was an immediate and outstanding success. Audiences responded with great enthusiasm to its expression of artistic and spiritual freedom.

The plot surrounds the Devil (Voland), sung with bags of Faustian charm and charisma by Derek Welton, smartly dressed in a tight-fitting white suit who with his odd-looking bunch of assistants in tow, most notably Behemoth the cat, outrageously attired and waspishly sung by Andrew Watts, brings chaos and confusion to all and sundry with Old Nick, as usual, pulling all the strings and controlling the situation in every minute detail. That's his job and he did it extremely well emerging from the pit stalls to make his first stage entrance in grand style and, no doubt, gathering a few innocent souls on the way.

One meets The Master languishing in a psychiatric clinic and Margarita (Queen of Satan's masked ball) seeks Voland's help in being reunited with him, one of the special 'favours' she asks for being his 'Queen'. The roles were confidently sung by Dietrich Henschel and Cristina Damian. Henschel looked and acted the part of the impoverished writer with dishevelled hair and so forth while Damian's clarity of voice cut through Höller's exciting and electrifying score like a knife through butter particularly in the moment when she pleads to be reunited with The Master at the start of the second act, a scene of intense drama and urgency.

The meeting and crucifixion of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus Christ) by Pontius Pilate was gracefully sung by Tigran Martirossian, clothed in a long-flowing red toga tunic echoing the ancient Jerusalem link to the story while doubling up as Dr Strawinsky, the zany boss of the Moscow psychiatric clinic, fitted out in a bright red suit.

One of the brightest scenes surrounded Voland and his entourage presenting a Variety Show of Black Magic to expose its hidden secrets but, of course, nothing like that happens and he exposes instead the greed and bourgeois behaviour of the spectators themselves. Therefore, in the closing scene of Act I it's a riot all the way as the opera's scenario focuses on present-day consumer greed (and need!) with a brigade of Muscovites clamouring for the latest Apple products with the company's iconic Apple logo boldly strapped at the back of a big white set.

The Master of Ceremonies - played to the gallery by local celebrity Corny Littman, President of Hamburg's St Pauli football club and owner of the St Pauli Theatre - is decapitated while bewitched money is rained down from the heavens with a host of fake 20 euro notes being grabbed left, right and centre by an enthusiastic audience loving every playful minute while a couple of real-value 50 euro notes brought the scene to a riotous and satisfying end. Pity, I was miles away from the action!

Maybe the scene was a comment on the current euro crisis but it definitely was a comment on arts funding in Hamburg with a strong reference being made to the escalating costs of the city's Elbphiharmonie raising millions of euros above its original budget of just 80 million while other arts' establishments were feeling the pinch.

At the psychiatric clinic the poet Ivan Besdomny (handsomely sung by Chris Lysack) - whom one meets at the beginning of the opera discussing his new work a satire dealing with the birth of Christ with editor-in-chief Mikhail Berlioz who also loses his head at the hand of the Devil - meets The Master who tells him about the Variety Show assuring him that Voland is the Devil in disguise.

The Master then tells him about his own life, how he's an aspiring young novelist and married but reveals he's in love with another married woman a reference, perhaps, to Bulgakov's deep love-affair with Elena Sergeevna, who later became his third wife. The end comes with The Master and Margarita being poisoned by Voland's wine but in doing so it opened up their way to freedom beyond the constraints of the real world while Besdomny keeps the 'faith' alive and is duly acknowledged as a student of The Master.

The production overall was tantalisingly exciting to say the least with the musical forces safely in the capable hands of Marcus Bosch while the opera was directed with consummate flair, energy and imagination by Jochen Biganzoli, particularly the scene of Mikhail Berlioz's rainy-day funeral with Höller including a few bars of Hector Berlioz's 'March to the Scaffold' from the Symphonie Fantastique while the stage setting seem to step right out of a work by the Scottish-born painter, Jack Vettriano, with mourners in profile and umbrellas unfolded.

Biganzoli also surrounded himself with a strong and punchy creative team that could not be bettered comprising Johannes Leiacker (set design), Heike Neugebauer (costume design), Stefan Bolliger (lighting) and Silvia Zygouris (choreography).

The Hamburg State Opera, incidentally, was Germany's first public opera house opening on 2nd January 1678. But the establishment of the opera did nothing to stop pious-minded theologians objecting to the lively antics that took place on stage. Pastor Winkler of St Michaelis Church, for instance, often described the opera as a 'public menace'. The mind boggles as to what he would think of Der Meister und Margarita.

Text © Tony Cooper
Photo © Jörg Landsberg
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