What is love?

What is love?

Somtow Sucharitkul's Helena Citronova is a success in Germany

What is love?

Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul's opera Helena Citronova had its European premiere in Hof, Germany, late last month, and it was a stunning success.

It was an outstanding production by Theater-Hof, directed by Lothar Krause and conducted by Ivo Hentschel, sung in German, unlike the world premiere in English in Bangkok in 2020. Somtow's opera is set in the Auschwitz concentration camp and tells the real-life story of a Slovakian Jew, Helena, who falls in love with an SS officer, Franz Wunsch.

Krause believes it is essential that people not forget the terrible events of the Nazi era. Somtow's opera was partly inspired by learning that the young musicians he works with in Bangkok are mostly ignorant of the Holocaust. It is a difficult subject matter and the German cast, especially those singing the parts of SS men, have spoken of a sort of psychological decontamination they go through after every performance.

Somtow's opera is comparatively short (87 minutes in the Hof production) and at the same time both economical and dense with meaning. Musically, it incorporates 12-tone music alongside Somtow's more usual lyrical post-Romantic style. It also employs popular songs, Jewish klezmer music, waltz, tango and so on. The effect is reminiscent of Mahler, and also Berg's Wozzeck. Hentschel's conducting is brisk but brings out with great clarity the nuances of the complex score.

Helena Citronova's European premiere in Hof, Germany, late last month. (Photos: Harald Dietz)

Krause's direction is superb, alive to every subtlety in the text and music. He and designer Annette Mahlendorf make outstanding use of the sparse set consisting of an area surrounded by high barbed wire fencing, from which a set of steps ascends to a balcony. But this simple set revolved frequently, and with highly effective lighting and the different viewpoints, our attention is commanded in a cinematic experience characteristic of Somtow, with shortish scenes and shifting perspectives. The use of the rotating fixed set, in which the components remain in the same spatial relationships to each other, mirrors the tone as the notes maintain the same set of relationships to each other while undergoing a series of transformations -- being heard from differing angles, as it were.

As the opera begins, we hear a steam train noisily starting slowly, getting faster, wheels turning, screeching and clanging, and then, with grinding brakes, stopping. It has arrived at Auschwitz-Berkenau. A frightened crowd of people carrying battered suitcases are harshly pushed behind the barbed wire of the camp. An old man complains. He is shot dead on the spot by an SS officer, who we learn is Franz Wunsch (Markus Gruber). Most of the new arrivals will be dead within a few hours. Some, like Helena (Inga Lisa Lehr), are saved to work in the camp.

Helena makes friends with another prisoner, Zdenka (Yvonne Prentki), who tells her the only way to survive is by hating. It is Wunsch's birthday, and he orders Helena to sing for him. She sings An Die Musik. He is fascinated by her. As Helena sings the Schubert song, we hear the Horst Wessel song, a Nazi anthem, sinuously becoming part of the accompaniment. These elements, the turning of the wheels, Helena's tone row, Schubert's song, and Horst Wessel, then continue, in fragments, to pervade and permeate the music.

Wunsch saves Helena's sister Rozinska (Stefanie Rhaue) from the gas chamber. Helena and Wunsch furtively fall in love. The other prisoners turn on Helena, seeing her as a collaborator, while Wunsch's superior officers interrogate him about the relationship. However, they both survive the war. In 1946, Helena travels to Vienna, where Wunsch lives with his mother. She wonders whether to call on him, but eventually walks away without seeing him.

The playing of the Hofer Symphoniker (including the on-stage klezmer quartet) is excellent, and the cast is uniformly good. Lehr and Prentki negotiate the difficult high notes of their initial duet with an intensity that expresses the horror they find themselves in and Lehr proves to be highly sympathetic as Helena. In the role of Wunsch Gruber, the tenor gives a lyrical performance which hints at the shreds of humanity that redeem him in Helena's eyes. Hans-Peter Pollmer is imposing, both physically and vocally, as Oskar, another SS officer.

Krause's direction is superb, but I had some minor reservations. I thought there should have been subtitles. It is increasingly common, even when operas are performed in the audience's native language, for there to be subtitles, and they are generally welcomed. But Krause feels they distract the audience from the action on the stage.

My second reservation is that at times a black screen is lowered, either totally or partially, and on it are sections of text -- usually two or three sentences. These are extracts from the real Helena's memoirs after the war, and they do not form part of Somtow's libretto or score. These texts seem superfluous given Somtow's deliberately sparse libretto, and where it is the music that expresses the deepest emotions.

And my final reservation was Krause's direction at the very end of the opera. In his interpretation, Helena does not walk away without seeing Wunsch. Instead, she and Franz actually meet face-to-face in the street outside his mother's home. For Krause, this effectively illustrates the power reversal that has occurred. In Auschwitz, he had all the power, but now Helena has -- and she is able to walk away from him. But that, surely, was already sufficiently evident.

None of this should detract in the slightest from the fact that this is a brilliant production, entirely at the service of the work itself. No Regietheatre here! Somtow uses his stylistic cauldron to represent the different values and ambiguities of the story. How is love possible between two such different people, in such a hellish place? Is it love? What is love? These questions are deliberately left unanswered, and the opera ends with a clash of A-flat major and G-sharp minor. Somtow, Krause and Hentschel have created an experience both intense and profound.

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