The U.S. premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s one-woman opera with chorus, Proserpina, is a remarkable tour-de-force vehicle for soprano Heather Buck. Buck, who did not follow a conventional path into opera but whose singing is nevertheless stunningly flawless, is a perfect fit for Rihm’s piece. Like this contemporary composer’s music, her artistry fulfills us in unexpected and unforeseen ways. She brings an intense lyrical sensuality to this role that might otherwise come off as a sterile exercise in atonal vocalise. It is evident that Buck has internalized this piece and has become one with it.
Her interpretation releases this opera from the realm of pure abstraction, even if only temporarily.
It is impossible to be unaware of the vocal acrobatics that suffuse the lead part but unlike elsewhere in the pantheon of atonal, post atonal, and post-post-whatever-isms, there are melodic lines and energies here invested with expressionistic intention. Rihm’s music thrives on a connection with the rich past of German music; among the ghosts haunting the underworld in this piece Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss are eminently present. The sustained lyrical line, even when it dips and vaults into the stratosphere, is constantly present.
Proserpina is scored for a small chamber ensemble. This smaller musical group allows the vocalists, solo, and chorus to shine while providing support, timbral variety and musical dominance when necessary. The sound design in this production which projected the unseen chorus and the brass sonorities evoking Pluto’s dark presence to different areas behind the set, deflecting them from Buck, is also noteworthy.
Under the careful control of conductor John Kennedy, the music on opening night sustained a kind of elegant restraint. While surely it may have been possible to loosen the restraint here and there, especially when Rihm’s score flashed and snarled, Kennedy’s choice was to contain the beast.
And what a passionate elegant beast this piece is; it even manages at one point to explore orgasmic pleasure in an exchange between Proserpina and the chorus of Fates.
The first sound heard in the opera, the open “ah” vocalization of the unseen chorus, becomes in the climactic scene, a series of female pleasure utterances in varying pitch, an exchange between soloist and chorus first climbing toward a peak and finally subsiding into collective sighs.
But the pleasure here is not earthy; it is a kind of alienation for which the main character senses she must be punished.
The myth of Prosepina and Pluto is the Roman version of the Greek myth, Persephone and Hades. Passed down to the Romans and passed down again through the centuries, diffused in Goethe’s early Romantic period melodrama, Rihm’s version brings a post-modern angst to this ancient story. Without staging, the piece could stand on its own as a kind of tone poem, a reflection or exploration of Western European’s so-called classical music and what it has become in our time. This is a recent work from Rihm, who was once a pupil of fire and brimstone abstractionist, Karlheinz Stockhausen. It is interesting to note how the elliptical and mathematically intense atonality of the mid- and late-20th century has given birth to this new lyricism, one closer in spirit to Schoenberg’s vision, one less intellectual and frigid, one less interested in punishing its audience in a fit of esthetic rage than in seeking a healing resolution, a connection, even a way to the audience’s heart.
And the myth of Proserpina, abducted by Pluto, the ruler of the underworld, and forced into a bleak existence until the Fates offer her a partial escape, is the perfect forum for Rihm’s exploration. Proserpina, offered a magical pomegranate by the Fates, is able to leave the underworld every year for six months but is doomed to return and remain under Pluto’s dominance for the next six months. This cyclical existence provides a mythical explanation for the change of seasons, from the flowering of spring to the bleak lifelessness of winter.
Rihm’s musical expression seems to be searching for that magic fruit, for a sacred enchantment, a way to redeem the dark intellectual winter of contemporary art music with the blossoming of a neo-Romantic style, harking back to the golden era of the European concert hall. But like Proserpina, serious art music may be eternally doomed to the dark underworld, robbed forever of its innocent past.
The staging for the Spoleto production under Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction, Marsha Ginsberg’s set and costume design and Tyler Micoleau’s subtle lighting, is also remarkable, taking its cue from the music. The set, with references to old downtown Charleston facades, and the costumes, which make the characters on stage seem like people you might run into on the street in the Holy City, make the abstraction more presentable and accessible.
The silent presence of Pluto, played laconically by Jason Bruffy, was a masterful touch. Siting on his “throne.” he was evocative of masculinity, the typical man of few words. Sitting in his chair, he might have been the typical young husband absorbed by a sports event who is completely clueless about the emotional chaos he has caused his unwilling mate. However, he is transformed from the center of power to the needy lover once Proserpina eats the magic fruit. The fruit simultaneously releases her from her enslavement but also forces her to accept the larger responsibility of leadership. As queen of the Underworld, her anguish seems doubled while Pluto is reduced to unfulfilled longing.
There are many messages in this presentation, and there are countless levels open to exploration. There is the idea of the German spirit, doomed so tragically by the events of the 20th century and its search for healing and resurgence. When Proserpina remembers a better time and then calls to her father for salvation repeatedly, the word “father” echoing over and over, the way this is musicalized calls up haunting visions of the Fatherland, of that dark German need for a dominant figure. In the music the idea of modernist art chained to its own sense of intellectual rigor yet longing for escape seems to ring constantly. There is also a hint of the rape of nature itself by modern, technological society. When the tree of magical fruit is brought on stage by the Fates, it transforms the bleakly geometrical enclosure; the tree is what is missing, what is so desperately needed for the cycle to resume.
The final word in the piece is “pain,” and the last note of the soprano is left for the instruments to sustain. “Do not call it love!” Prosepina tells Pluto. “Throw me with these, your arms, into the all-destroying pain.”
But ultimately, the sense here is that the pain is part of the mythic landscape and that indeed it is a love of art and beauty that inspires the vision. Rihm’s music is not about the spiritual anguish of a lost world; it is about rediscovery. It is about the responsibility every artist has to redefine communication and, in the process, to redefine what touches an audience, not just to harp on what pushes it away.