Lohengrin/Christian Wolff review

Huddersfield contemporary music festival
Petr Kotik conducted a long-lost reworking by John Cage and nyMusikk Bergen performed a retelling of the grail legend with almost indecently intimate music

Based on Jules Laforgue’s retelling of the grail legend, Salvatore Sciarrino’s version of Lohengrin is three hours shorter than Wagner’s and considerably more ambiguous, as the action is experienced by the child-bride Elsa in the form of a nightmarish hallucination. The only other opera it vaguely resembles is Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine. Whereas the anxiety of Poulenc’s heroine is that her lover might hang up on her, Elsa’s terror is that her mysterious husband will remount his swan and vanish from whence he came.

The music, which barely rises above a susurrating pianissimo, felt almost indecently intimate. Sofia Jernberg’s Elsa squatted in semi-darkness on a little hummock, like the victim of a particularly cruel Beckettian scenario, with the amplified sound of her sloshing saliva and grinding teeth integrated into the score. The Norwegian production, brought to the Huddersfield contemporary music festival by nyMusikk Bergen, was frankly terrifying. Lohengrin never appeared, but was instead represented by a pair of suspended pillows that began to writhe and explode when pumped full of compressed air.

The career of Christian Wolff, who turned 80 this year, has been closely linked with that of his former composition teacher, John Cage. It was Wolff who first introduced Cage to the I Ching, and the highlight of Ostravská Banda’s concert was the premiere of a piece – lost in an archive for 50 years – in which Cage returned the compliment by re-notating a dance score of Wolff’s to include time markings rather than measures. Petr Kotik, among whose papers the piece was found, conducted with the solemnity of a priest enacting a long-forgotten rite. But for those with only a passing interest in Cageian arcana, it amounted to no more than another chance encounter.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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