Music Brian Ferneyhough
Text Charles Bernstein
Staging Pia Forsgren
Set design and light Pia Forsgren, Tomas Franck and Kenneth Björk
Costume Mikael T Zielinski
The three scenes to be performed are:
Les froissements d’ailes de Gabriel, Opus contra naturam, Seven Tableaux vivants depicting the history as the angel of melancholia.
Magnus Andersson, Solo Guitar
Brian Ferneyhough, Recital
Franck Ollu, Conductor
Fredrik Ullén, Solo Piano
Shadowtime was made in collaboration with Stockholm New Music and Rikskonserter.
Pia Forsgren about Shadowtime
The most obvious interpretation of Brian Ferneyhough and Charles Bernstein’s stagework would of course be to accentuate the sombre and turn the opera into a melancholy shadowplay. This is precisely what director Pia Forsgren has tried to avoid.
Nor are there any angel wings or obviously religious symbols among the props. Instead the guiding light has been the borderline quality – the trip back and forth between the living and the dead that progressively lifts the material.
– As far as possible I have reduced scenic expression rather than add a lot of details, says Pia Forsgren. I don’t feel at home in naturalistic or realistic theatre and don’t want to dress the figures in overt symbols. Weight is not the important thing in this performance but lightness.
– That’s why I’ve been working with a light almost blinding space rather than underline the darkness that is already in the music and libretto. It would be such a cliché to conjure up an image of the 1930s as a dark decade. The challenge lies in freeing the language in a non-theatrical way that stirs feelings in the audience. I don’t believe in creating other levels of interpretation but am content in carving away at the pre-existing material. The interesting thing about this performance is that the blinding attack can defy gravity. The answer to the multitude of shades in the opera is a space with no shade at all.
”A storm is blowing in from Paradise”
SHADOWTIME composer Brian Ferneyhough and writer Charles Bernstein’s collaborative opera on Walter Benjamin was first performed at the Munich Prinzregententheater on 25 May 2004.
The work opens on the last hours of Walter Benjamin’s life spent at the small Fonde de Francia hotel at the border town Portbou between France and Spain. He has just found out that his visa, made out in Marseille, is not valid and must return to France which will inevitably entail his being caught by the Nazis and deported to the concentration camps. Whether Benjamin committed suicide or not is a question that the opera leaves open and unanswered.
SHADOWTIME is not the account of Walter Benjamin’s life but a voyage through the many-faceted thought that makes the world into several concurrences. Central to the structural development of the work are the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In the ninth thesis Benjamin writes of the angel of history, taking as his premise a Paul Klee painting that he had purchased 20 years earlier.
A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history.
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise, it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Three of the seven scenes of SHADOWTIME will be performed for Stockholm New Music.
Scene No 2 “Les froissements d’ailes de Gabriel” (The rustling of the Angel Gabriel’s wings) is written as a concert for guitar and 13 instruments. Among the accompanying instruments are another guitar, tuned a quarter-note lower, which acts as the solo guitar’s dark shadow, and this doppelganger theme returns in various guises throughout the opera. This is also true for scene No 4 “Opus contra naturam” for solo piano, in which Walter Benjamin enters the netherworld and appears as a Las Vegas bar pianist, bearing some resemblance to the glittering Liberace. The pianist sits at the piano after closing-time and plays various fragments, some of them reminiscent of the tonal material in scene No 2. Simultaneously, the gambling city of Las Vegas is there as an image of the hyper-simulated world, one of the contemporary main entrances to Hades.
The sixth scene, titled ”7 Tableaux vivants depicting history as the angel of melancholia” concerns that very melancholy angel, a figure not only related to Paul Klee’s painting but also Albercht Dürer’s famous engraving ”Melancholia” depicting an angelic winged person sitting lost in thought, surrounded by objects symbolising measuring and scientific research. In this scene texts by Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus, amongst others, are recited, in this case by Brian Ferneyhough himself. In his book on German Baroque tragedy, Benjamin writes about the condition of melancholy and the different levels of importance in Dürer’s picture that make it something of a portrayal of his own sense of loss in the world. The opera can also be interpreted this way. Walter Benjamin is transformed from an historic figure to a floating condition, a timeline within time.