Four Funerals and No Wedding

Dust and Ashes, a new opera by composer Thomas Winstrich, was premiered last week in the State Opera of Brönitz. Those who were attracted by the production’s massive publicity and expected Gothic horrors were disappointed. For me it was the opposite. The work turned out te be more serious, subtle and ironic than its theme or title might suggest. Winstrich calls his work a “documentary opera”, not in the sense that it presents us with facts, but rather that it documents the universal human tendency to seek answers in myth, particularly concerning “this hardest-to-swallow truth: that there is an end to all of us”.

Dust and Ashes is exceptional simply because all its heroes are dead before the curtain rises. Its shows the funerals of four composers, Mozart, Paganini, Weber, and Liszt. Living protagonists there are only two: Richard Wagner, cast as baritone in the third act, and his wife, Cosima Wagner née Liszt (mezzo soprano), in the final act. Apart from a somewhat surrealist recreation of the funerary rites little happens on stage – it may be the most static and ritualistic musical drama since Parsifal. Luckily the imaginative cinematic stage design (by Voss & Tohanka) succeeds in keeping things alive.

The main action however is in the music. Though it is basically a pastiche from the four dead composers’ oeuvres, the complexity of its many levels of quotations and allusions exceeds familiar postmodernist pasting practices. Music is piled up layer upon layer in a score which demands a huge orchestra, a strong choir, and in acts 3 and 4 a wind band on stage. Despite the intensive use of borrowed materials, there is great inventiveness in the ways these are structured in waves of increasing and decreasing density. And if I can trust my ears and memory, there are quite a few original ideas hidden in between the stolen notes.

The opera’s first act is the shortest and maybe the most effective. Whether or not Mozart’s “third class” burial in a shared grave was disgraceful by the standards of the time, it remains a shocking idea to us that no ceremony took place at the graveyard and that no permanent marker was erected to identify the spot. Winstrich fills the void with a grimly humorous, Shakespearean dialogue between grave diggers, undertakers, coach drivers and a drunken priest, interspersed with fragments from Mozart’s Requiem and other works, which sound like they’re carried by the wind from a distant place.

The second act is maybe the weakest, due to the lack of any great mournful music by its deceased hero, Niccolò Paganini (1824). It also has the weakest foundation in known facts. The truth seems to be that the devil’s own fiddler died without absolution, and therefore was denied a religious burial. The body remained above ground for more than a year, then was moved from one temporary grave to another, and found its present resting place only in 1896. Legend has it that Paganini’s son Achille sailed the coffin from one port to another in despair, until he set foot on an uninhabited rock in the Mediterranean where he secretly dug a grave. With its maritime scenery, this act most heavily depends upon cinematic effects. Musically it works more or less like a grim symphonic scherzo, the apotheosis of demonic virtuosity, with an orchestra of ghostly violins in the air (playing in the pit and and projected above the stage). It refers, I suppose, to the burden of virtuosity (or eternal restlessness) carried by all post-romantic musicians.

Following chronology, the opera puts Carl Maria von Weber (1826) after Paganini, because what it shows is Weber’s second burial in Dresden, 1844. Already gravely ill, Weber had traveled to London, were he died without his family soon after the premiere of Oberon. His grave was neglected and nearly forgotten, according to Richard Wagner, who, 31 years old and an ambitious second conductor at the Dresden opera, took lead in an initiative to bring home the remains of his predecessor. For the occasion Wagner arranged fragments from Weber’s Euryanthe for winds, and at the graveside held the speech which is the basis for the first extended vocal solo in this opera (sung more securely than sensitively by Claus Sikurny).

“It happened to me (Wagner writes in Mein Leben), as I had started my speech with clarity and great sonority, that for a moment the sound of my own voice had such an almost frightening effect upon myself, that I was completely carried away and imagined not only hearing myself, but watching myself before the breathless crowd. This self-objectification created in me an intense expectation of the fascinating event which was about to happen before me, as if it was not I myself standing here, ready to speak. […] Only my own prolonged silence and the quietude around me reminded me of the fact that I had to speak, not to listen.”

His first inspiration for this work, Thomas Winstrich says, has come from this episode, at the heart of which is an astonished, self-reflective silence, a kind of Doppelgänger experience. Similar (yet differently motivated) silences are the core of each of the four acts, as a kind of “white hole” around which the musical waves “keep rotating”.

Act 4 is the weightiest, weirdest and saddest. Franz Liszt died in 1886, three years after his son-in-law Richard Wagner, during his visit to the Bayreuth festival. The circumstances of his death are a tangle of legends, unreliable memoires, and sloppy biography. Winstrich has chosen to focus on Liszt’s daughter and Wagner’s widow, Cosima. The stage action shows not the funeral itself, but (in extreme slow motion) the moment when the composer’s body is carried from his rented rooms to the Wagner villa Wahnfried on the other side of the street, on the morning of August 2, 1886. (The melodramatic description of the event in Alan Walker’s 1996 biography, loosely based on the diary of Lina Schmalhausen, cannot be trusted; see Ernst Burger, Franz Liszt: Leben und Sterben in Bayreuth, 2011).

Cosima’s monologue (intelligently interpreted by Angela Berger) is set on an extratemporal plane outside the action, a reflection on life, death and pain drawn from her diaries and childhood letters to her father.

Not a note written by Liszt himself sounded during the real event, an omission redressed in this operatic recreation, which includes parts of the Requiem Liszt supposedly composed for himself (a little known, austere composition for male voices, organ and winds), as well as fragments from his many other funerary compositions. These are overlaid with a thick carpet of allusions which remind the spectator of the many directions the Liszt Nachfolge has taken in the 20th Century.

Musical density increases as the opera progresses, reflecting (according to the composer) “music history’s ever growing burden of riches”, as “a tribute to the presentness of the past”. This explains something of the haunting quality of this work. Never have there been so many auditory ghosts in my already overstuffed head.