In his “Purgatorio” John Neumeier has tackled the composer´s Tenth Symphony
Hamburg State Opera
July 3, 2011
by Horst Koegler
copyright by Horst Koegler
With "Purgatorio“ as his newest creation, John Neumeier opened the 37th Hamburg Ballet Days on June 26. It registers as Opus 14 in his catalogue of ballets based upon music by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Neumeier started it in 1970, then the 28 years old artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet, with “Rondo”, his balletic interpretation of Mahler's song ´Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen´ (´I have lost track of the world´) from 1901.
Since then Neumeier has pursued his survey of the Mahlerian symphonies and lieder cycles, arriving now at the composer´s Tenth Symphony, which Mahler left unfinished at the time of his death. This was later arranged as a performing version of Mahler´s draft by Deryck Cooke. Its 3rd movement, an Allegretto moderato, is entitled ´Purgatorio´ after the second station of Dante´s ´Divina comedia´, its purgatory reflecting the betrayal of a close friend. In the context of the symphony it refers to Mahler´s discovery of the adultery of his wife Alma (1879-1964), an amateur composer herself, with the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969).
Neumeier has split up the ballet in two parts. The first is entitled ´Alma,´ and it is set to a selection of songs by Alma, beautifully interpreted by the soprano Charlotte Margiono, alas with hardly a word to be understood, It is accompanied by the Hamburg Philharmonic under its Generalmusikdirektor Simone Young. Neumeier has arranged it as a sort of Prologue, dealing with Mahler and his wife holidaying in Carynthia, he busily working at his Tenth Symphony, while she takes a cure in a nearby spa, where she occasionally meets the much younger, highly attractive Gropius, starting with him an affaire, of which her husband gets informed by chance. This strikes him like a thunder-bolt, making it impossible for him to continue with his work and leading to embittered arguments of the couple.
There follows an intermission of about half an hour, stretching the performance time of the evening to almost two and half hours. For the second part, dealing with the five movements of the Tenth Symphony, introduced by a last quotation from Alma´s songs (´Meine Nächte`- ´My Nights´ – about the tortures she suffers from her dreams), lasts for almost another ninety minutes. It starts with the monumental Adagio, which is the only movement finished by Mahler. It is dominated by four roles, Gustav Mahler, Creator Spiritus as his creative inspirer who wanders through the whole piece, Alma and Walter Gropius. The second movement emerges as a Scherzo, concentrating on Mahler, Alma and Gropius. Follows the third and shortest movement, entitled by Mahler Purgatorio, with himself as the central figure. It prepares for the fourth movement, another Scherzo, its beginning overwritten ´The Devil dances with me´and once again Mahler, Alma and Creator Spiritus function as the focusing persons. Comes the Finale, another highly complex lengthy movement, which in addition to Mahler Creator Spiritus, Alma and Gropius introduces Die Mutter (Mahler´s mother).
Thus we have five protagonists to which Neumeier adds two soloist couples plus the corps, strengthened by the pupils of the Hamburg Ballet School. It is an imposing cast, which he directs majestically, the sovereign of his Hamburg ballet imperium.
As Deryk Cooke has arranged the sketches left by Mahler, orchestrated and completed them according to Mahler´s own working practices, which he had developed in his nine preceding symphonies and song cycless, the finished Tenth Symphony represents a sort of anthology and iconography – a summing up of his life work as a composer. Time and again during its performance one feels reminded of typical Mahlerian idiosyncrasies one knows from his earlier output, even if there are hardly any direct quotations.
Neumeier has proceeded accordingly, by using the compositorial and choreographical tools he has acquired during his almost half a century of creating ballets. So that he, too, reminds one constantly of earlier examples of his by now enormous output - not, however, as a sort of summary of the artistic experiences of his life, but certainly as the catalogue of his iconography of working tools. It is highly impressive, always intimately connected with the music, and yet I had the feeling that I had seen many of them before – in other words: I missed the creative spark which illuminated his best works before (I could list easily at least twelve - and there are not that many choreographers in the course of ballet history who could match that record,). There happens a lot of padding, especially in the group arrangements. where I sensed that he was just filling time, compelled by the overlength of the music (which he would never dare to cut). On the other side they were performed with such exuberant enthusiasm by the splendidly trained Hamburg dancers and infected with such contagious high voltage electricity, that I had to control my limbs so that they did not catapult me out of my seat. It is fascinating to watch them dancing, such a display of perfect beauty, which is just overwhelming.
And then there were so many moments of heart-wrenching emotions which left me breathless. So much was I suffering with their innermost fights against themselves and with each other that I felt inevitably drawn into their personal sorrows.
It is perfectly cast. Headed by Lloyd Riggins as Mahler, his is the interpretation of a life-time. He has created many central character roles since he arrived in Hamburg 16 years ago – among them Aschenbach in “Death in Venice” as well as in Neumeier´s “Nijinsky”, “Préludes CV” and “Christmas Oratory”, each of which he has lent his personal touch. Here he is the creative composer on the pinnacle of his international reputation who suffers a turmoil of inner qualms when he becomes aware of the infidelity of his wife. And yet there is a certain majestic humanity which makes their final reconciliation possible. Alma is Hélène Bouchet, a principal of the Hamburg since 2003, a woman of classic beauty and a dancer of a smooth liquidity with an aura of her own. Unfortunately she has decided to quit at the end of the season. She will be a great loss. Thiago Bordin is Argentinian and as Gropius the complete contrast to Riggins´ Mahler: youthful, spontaneous, quivering with life, a dancer who seems to have a spring as his backbone, elegant and persuasive in every movement and of an almost animal charisma. As Creator Spiritus the Ukranian Alexandre Riabko has matured to become the number one of Hamburg principals, slim and wiry, he oozes sex with every pore, and he seems to be indefatigable, for the evening before my performance (on July 3) he had danced the enormously demanding role of Puck in Neumeier´s “Midsummer Night´s Dream”. He looks like the son of Mercury. who has been descended from his heavenly heights. And then there comes at the end Anna Polikarpova as Mahler´s Mother, a pupil of the Vaganova Institute and a former member of the then Leningrad Kirov, she joined he Hamburg colleagues in 1992 and was nominated as a principal two years later, since when she has matured to become an almost matriarchal ikon of the company. a dancer of untouchable dignity, communicating a state of imperturbable calm.
And so my admiration for the whole undertaking is stupendous: as the synthesis of music, dramaturgy, choreography, design (by Neumeier - very sparse, but with ravishing lighting of the blurred mountainous and lakeside landscapes), let alone the production and the performance by the dancers, including the two pas de deux couples of Joelle Boulogne and Carsten Jung, Anna Laudère and Edvin Revazov plus the mass ensembles of peasants, holidayers, patients, society people and carefree youngsters. And yet the evening did not really make me happy – not in the way I had been happy 24 hours before during the supreme Hamburg performance of Neumeier´s “Midsummer Night´s Dream” with its galvanizing power of a world theatre event, the like of Max Reinhardt´s famous production for the Salzburg Festival in 1925 or Peter Brook´s production of 1968 – dwarfing completely the various ballet “Midsummer Night´s Dream ” productions I have attended all over the world, including Balanchine, and the multitude of stagings of Britten´s opera. And this has to do with the elephantiasis of Neumeier´s undertaking, which he has blown up to giant size, while I wish he might have concentrated on Mahler´s complete opening Adagio movement, which with its performing time of 25 minutes is long enough to distill the story of its three protagonists (with even leaving enough time to integrate the Creator Spiritus and the Mother) and explore the psychological depths of the tragedy – like Antony Tudor has managed with a different conflict in his “Lilac Garden”).
What I missed entirely was the evocation of that special time of 1910 at the verge of Old Europe´s bankruptcy – which had led Mahler to seek the advice of Sigmund Freud. It resulted in a performance left in limbo, which perhaps may be described as a different sort of purgatory.
I wouldn´t be astonished if one day in the not so distant future there came a young academician, preparing a dissertation on ”John Neumeier and his ´Purgatory´ as the model of his approach to balleticize the music of Gustav Mahler”!
All photos copyright Holger Badekow.
Top: Lloyd Riggins and Alexaner Riabko.
Middle: Thiago Bordin, Helene Bouchet, Lloyd Riggins.
Bottom: Lloyd Riggins, Helene Bouchet.