At the end of March, in the Hall of Ceremonies next to the Hammersdorf fortified church, Hermannstadt, the death and resurrection of Christ were celebrated in a different register than the one we are accustomed to. Passio, op. 25 of the Austrian composer Werner Schulze was set on stage, a work that approaches the most sensitive Christian theological subject with the devices and obsessions of contemporary music. Its premiere took place in Vienna in 2016. At the suggestion of the Austrian director Teresa Leonhard, the composition, which ends with the death and burial of Christ (according to the passio genre), is added, for this representation, the medieval anthem Quem quaeritis, as dramatic support for a performance of contemporary dance. The version for the Romanian public is also given a new title: Leid und Hoffnung – Calvary and Hope.
The Opus is designed for a small and atypical number of musical instruments: a quartet made of two pianos (instrumentalists – Brita Falch-Leutert and Jürg Leutert) and two percussion assemblies (Gabriel Barani and Andrei Marcovici). Melinda Samson, soprano, plays the role of Christ; the baritone Johann Leutgeb – the voice of the evangelist – performs successively the roles of Peter and Pilate; Klaus Philippi, tenor, plays the role of Caiaphas; a women choir and a men choir are therewith added. The Dance Company DIS.PLACE, led by Teresa Leonhard, provides the choreography. For the performance in Sibiu, Werner Schulze, the composer of the work took up the conducting.
The libretto, also conceived by Werner Schulze, mainly uses texts from the Gospel of John in both German and the original language of the Gospels – ancient Greek. And not by chance: Schulze has composed several philosophical-theological works in which the language and motifs of the ancient Greek culture have a structural role (e.g. the trilogy: Oidipus Tyrannos, op 19; Anchibasíe, work inspired by the fragments of Heraclitus and Empedocle, op. 17; Socrates, op. 11). The Greek-language phonemes, coupled with the austerity of percussion sounds and the abrupt sounds of the pianos, induce the audience into an atmosphere of ancient tragedy. These Greek elements suggest what seems to be obvious: the passio genre is, in essence, a tragic genre.
There are several forms of commemoration of the crucifixion, some of which have been established as canonical since the time of the first councils. Many important artists have adapted the Passions of Christ to the cultural coordinates of their time. For contemporary classical music, with few exceptions, the genre of passions remains unusual. Contemporary works of the genre still preserve tonal, melodic lines (such as the Passio by Arvo Pärt or St Matthew Passion by Hilarion Alfeyev, which explicitly echoes Baroque era musical ideas in the Orthodox context). But the musicality proposed by Schulze’s Passio is not one with which both the music lover and the religious believer audience have met too often, at least in the Eastern-European region. What Schulze does may seem too far beyond the sober, canonized message of the Resurrection, and from the baroque harmony of the Passions of Christ. There is something in Schulze’s work that echoes the atmosphere of the Passio et mors Dominius Jesu Christi secundum Lucam of Krzysztof Penderecki, a composition almost totally atonal. Among the works that deal with the passio genre, Schulze’s opus is experimental and innovative, especially by choosing specific musical instruments and atonal accents. For both Penderecki and Schulze, nothing can express better the absurdity of crucifixion than atonality.
The musical translation of passions by Schulze is very welcome, as the modern listener can rediscover sacredness through the stage. The author himself appreciates seven of his works (since 1998) as Theology on Stage, artistic efforts of a liturgical nature, performing services. Works of this kind are op. 16/1, Il Cantico di Frate Sole and op. 16/2 LlulL. El Misteri del Logos. Theology on stage presupposes that the work of art is complete, a Gesamtkunstwerk, and the spectator becomes complete, both religiously and aesthetically. Leid + Hoffnung manages to bring the melomaniac into the religious space, and to transfer the believer from the strictly liturgical space towards the stage. Considering the day and place of the concert (Good Friday), the believer is challenged to momentarily become an aesthete, to see how modern art – through atonality and performance – can make the sacred experience, even when it comes to Golgotha, transitive.
Of course, there may be critics to accuse certain impieties of the work: disharmonic sounds, an absurd quartet (two pianos and two percussions), and especially the scandal of Christ being interpreted by a female voice (soprano). But before one revolts, one should keep in mind that the soprano voice is not exclusively for female voice; it may also be masculine; the score specifies only the voice, as soprano. In La Pasión según San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov, a work requested by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart for the Passion 2000 project (commemorating 250 years since Bach’s death), Christ is also performed by men and women (soloists or chorus). One may mention here that the Vatican accepted in 2017, for the first time in over five hundred years, that a woman (mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli) to sing in the Sistine Chapel along with the Sistine Chapel Choir. The choir is active since the 15th century and has always had a strictly masculine composition. In the case of the Leid und Hoffnung performance, the message of interpreting Christ’s role by a woman is not a blunt feminist challenge. With her extraordinary voice, Melinda Samson played her impeccable role in white in the midst of black-dressed male performers. This very inspired choice of feminine Christ is rather a way of suggesting the innocence of the Paschal Victim, the image of the lamb led to stabbing, through a play of genders and chromatics. Somehow, femininity brings a more natural image of the victim than masculinity.
The conclusion of the show carries the signature of artist Teresa Leonhard. Adjacent to the original version of 2016 for the performance in Hermannstadt, Teresa Leonhard adds to this passio the hope of the resurrection. This hope is expressed by the medieval dialogue Quem quaeritis?, also known as Visitatio Sepulchri – the dialogue between the angel and the women who came to the tomb – a dialogue introduced by Leonhard as a close to Schulze’s message. Meditation is doubled by the choreography of the contemporary dance group DIS.PLACE, a group whose members, with the exception of Teresa Leonhard, are not professional dancers. Moreover, some of the dancers are underage and others are impaired.
Like Schulze, Leonhard is a solitary and courageous artist. Leonhard’s choreographic composition and vision deserves an articulated recognition for the daring promotion of dancers from the periphery of society, and for how she rethinks the stage and tackles problematic subjects through bodily motion. For Leonhard, the DIS.PLACE dancers represent “a symbol of the imperfection and fragility of life”, which should remind us of the handicap we have before the sacred and, at the same time, the vulnerability and innocence of people with disabilities. This theme has been explored by Leonhard in other works, such as the excellent Ver/Rückungen, a show in which several dancing actors co-starred on holy fools and foolishness for Christ. The presence of people with disabilities and the fact that they perform and improvise in real time at the end of the show, in the absurdity of the post-crucifixion, strongly suggests the vacuum in those three days of the death of the divine. The director’s vision further accentuates the pre-resurrection anguish, even if his meditation is based on the light that the dialogue between the angels and the visitors to the grave foretell. The stated goal of the choreography, Teresa Leonhard insists, is to emphasize the “direction from death to life” expressed through the individual language of each dancer.
author: George Florin Calian
photo: Jully Schwarz