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The Hunting Gun at Aldeburgh Festival

03.07.2019


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The opening work of Aldeburgh’s Festival’s 72nd edition, Thomas Larcher’s chamber opera, The Hunting Gun, proved a formidable piece telling the story of a secret love affair through the letters of three people. It was directed with flair and imagination by the acclaimed Austrian actor/film director, Karl Markovics.

Comprising a prologue and three acts of roughly of 1hr 45min in length, The Hunting Gun (Das Jagdgewehr) by Thomas Larcher (one of Aldeburgh’s artists-in-residence) was sung in German with English surtitles to a libretto by Friederike Gösweiner. It received its UK première at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival following its world première at the Bregenz Festival (the commissioning body) last year.

The scenario - based upon the best-selling post-war Japanese novella The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue published in 1949 - surrounds a poet enjoying a winter’s walk on Mount Amagi who, by chance, comes upon a solitary, lonely and sad-looking hunter searching for his prey. He publishes a poem about him. His name: Josuke Misugi. 

Believing himself to be the central character depicted in the poem, Misugi writes to the Poet to explain the cause of his sadness through three letters coming from three women closely associated with him: his wife Midori, his mistress Saiko (who happens to be Midori’s cousin and best friend) and his niece Shoko, the daughter of Saiko. 

A story of multi-layered deception and secrets unfold and the psychological impact of illicit love is first viewed through the eyes of Shoko, who’s shocked about the affair and learns about it by reading her mother’s diary. It is then viewed through the eyes of Midori who had long known about her husband’s dalliance with Saiko and thinking about a divorce and, finally, through the eyes of Saiko herself. The central character helplessly looks on closely observing the tragedy unfolding before him while clasping his gun that ‘presses the whole burden deep into the lonely man’s body and soul’. 

Following a decade of their illicit love-affair, the truth emerged of Saiko’s affair with Misugi and distressed and guilt-ridden she implores her daughter Shoko to burn her diary to get rid of the evidence - but to no avail. She’s highly distracted by the detailed content she finds in it. In ancient Japanese culture, there’s a long-standing history of suicide being honourable in matters of serious wrongdoing therefore, in the end, Saiko let go and takes a poisonous draught while full of shame and remorse for being so indiscreet to Midori.

The opera’s action is set against a simple white-covered origami-influenced  paper cut-out set designed by Katharina Wöppermann comprising an oblong-shaped open-ended white box while Mount Amagi was represented as a steep and narrow crooked walkway punctuated by a large puffy white cloud whilst the back wall of Snape Maltings’ vast stage area was used as a screen flashing a series of video sequences (masterminded by director, Karl Markovics) showing the ever-changing pattern of the seasons and so forth. And giving the right emphasis to the overall stage picture, Bernd Purkrabek’s simple lighting effects hit the mark.

But, really, it’s from the orchestra pit that the drama and turbulence of human emotion and interaction really bites and right from the opening bars one is totally immersed in a distinctive sound-world created by a wonderful and odd combination of instruments ranging from glockenspiels and vibraphones to drums, tams-tams, bells and even a piano accordion. 

In fact, Mr Larcher’s meticulous instructions for the players could have jumped right out of a cookery-book. Here’s a taster: ‘vibraphone mallet heads wrapped in aluminium foil’ or ‘bass drum, rub with brush or sponge’ but, perhaps, best of all, ‘piano: roll billiard-ball along the strings until it hits the frame’. The ‘fireworks’ department will never, I think, be the same again!

Anything but conventional, Mr Larcher’s ‘orchestra’ was strong on woodwind and brass restricting the strings to just a quartet aided by double-bass. Anyhow, he certainly delivered a ravishing and captivating score that in its climactic and most dramatic passages was punctuated by the tight sound of hard repetitive drum beats - a technique often used in Japanese Noh Theatre - to illustrate and highlight the stage action. 

The same Japanese theatre style often uses an off-stage chorus to complement the performers and, in this respect, Mr Larcher fell in line with this convention and the seven forceful and well-controlled voices of Exaudi Vocal Ensemble became an integral part of the overall orchestral texture and were immaculately heard from their off-stage position.

The opera was extremely well cast and acted in a slow and minimalist sort of way. Samuel Boden (Poet) looked the part from head to toe not only by his style and dress but also by his actions. He only appeared at the beginning and at the end of the opera. French soprano, Sarah Aristidou, put in a fiery and bruising performance as Shoko as befitting her angst and anger hitting the top range of her bright sparkling voice with consummate ease while the despairing and anguished role of Midori was well portrayed and beautifully sung by Italian soprano, Giulia Peri, in an effortless and subdued manner. German mezzo-soprano, Iris van Wijnen, brought pathos and sadness to the role of Saiko while German baritone, Peter Schöne, as Josuke Misugi, the huntsman, played his role in a diffident and solitary manner harbouring the guilt and mistrust of a person found out. 

Ryan Wigglesworth was safely in the pit conducting the newly-formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra led by Clio Gould created in memory of Oliver Knussen who died following last year’s Aldeburgh Festival. He was so closely associated with the Festival and, in particular, Britten, whom 50 years ago this year invited him to have his music performed at the Aldeburgh Festival. What a marvellous début for the orchestra assembled from some of the UK’s leading orchestral players and the finest emerging instrumentalists.

Mr Larcher’s first foray into the genre of opera has handsomely paid off. The Hunting Gun has been a big success and by seeing it at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, with its cosy, intimate and warm setting, it couldn’t be better.

The last word, I feel, has to go to the composer who said: ‘When I first read Mr Inoue’s novella, The Hunting Gun,’ he exclaimed, ‘I was immediately captured by its timelessness. It addresses questions encountered and recognised by absolutely everyone involved in relationships with other individuals (myself included) such as whether to stay and leave, speak out or stay silent, hold on or let go.’ In the end it was the protagonist who stayed silent while his mistress let go.

Samuel Boden (Poet)
Sarah Aristidou (Shoko)
Giulia Peri (Midori)
Iris van Wijnen (Saiko)
Peter Schöne (Josuke Misugi)
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)
Maria Fitzgerald (assistant conductor / répétiteur)
Karl Markovics (director / video production)
Christopher Harris (director’s assistant)
Katharina Wöppermann (set designer)
Bernd Purkrabek (lighting designer)
Benedikt Marte (assistant lighting designer) 
Exaudi Vocal Ensemble (director: James Weeks)
Knussen Chamber Orchestra (conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth)


(Snape Maltings Concert Hall) Suffolk, England. June 2019
Photograph, Stephen Cummiskey

 

Tony Cooper

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