Der Mieter, Oper Frankfurt — the intensity is almost unbearable

November 14, 2017

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“Half in love with easeful death”; John Keats found words for the inexpressible yearning of the suicidal. Arnulf Herrmann’s Der Mieter, premiered on Sunday at the Frankfurt Opera, conveys the feeling with music so strong that it clings to you afterwards like treacle. If you are feeling unstable, stay away.

Roland Topor’s 1964 novel Le Locataire chimérique tells the story of a tenant in an apartment block driven to emulate his predecessor, a young woman who leapt to her death from the window. Roman Polanski’s 1976 film of the tale, The Tenant, is a dark psychodrama or a thriller, depending on your point of view. For Frankfurt, Herrmann and his librettist Händl Klaus have excised the ambiguity, making this a journey to the blackest regions of an anguished psyche in a hostile world.

Herrmann uses sound to say things beyond language — not only the oppressive thud of a knock on the door or the persistent drip of a tap, but also the terrible way these sounds are magnified in the mind of his protagonist. To conventional orchestral instruments used with a focus on the lower instruments and the percussion section, he adds occasional electronic effects, dripping into the house in surround sound. Dense tone clusters, syllabic settings, short phrases — this is a score with a good deal of violence. The voice of Johanna, the tenant’s dead antecedent, becomes a bittersweet juxtaposition, high spirals of longing, dizzying, seductive. Hermann builds up to an intensity that is almost unbearable, and then continues. This is not entertainment. This is a form of slow torture. But it is very, very good.

The Frankfurt Opera has done everything to help the new work succeed. In Johannes Erath, they have appointed a stage director whose imagery is profoundly psychological and whose sense of space and motion is intensely musical. Kazushi Ono brings authority and empathy to the score, drawing committed playing and unremitting focus from his forces.

And the cast is formidable. Björn Bürger gives a no-holds-barred account of the athletic, tormented title role, and Anja Petersen’s stratospheric account of the ghostly Johanna is a visceral experience.

This is clearly a loved child, a new opera born into a family that has the will and the means to nurture it. But it is the pairing of librettist and composer that is perhaps the work’s strongest card. Klaus is a writer who knows how music theatre works, a depressingly rare attribute in today’s sensation-hungry world, and he has worked with Herrmann so closely that the words seem to have been born as notes.

Der Mieter is a repugnant, dirty, gruelling piece. See it if you can.


To December 7,

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