Holliger: Lunea review – opaque and intricate opera of beautiful, fragile music
In both his own music and as a conductor, Heinz Holliger has long been fascinated by the connections between creativity and mental health issues, and drawn to exploring the lives and work of composers and other artists whose lives have been affected by both. The poetry of Hölderlin, the writings of Robert Walser, the paintings of Louis Soutter and the music of Robert Schumann have previously all been the starting points for major Holliger scores, and in 2014 he composed a song cycle for the baritone Christian Gerhaher based on fragments of text by the Austrian Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), written during the final six years of his life, which were spent in an asylum.
That Lenau song cycle provided Holliger with the framework for the opera Lunea, subtitled “Lenau scenes in 23 leaves from a life”, which received its premiere at the Zurich Opera in 2018 with Gerhaher as Lenau; the superb ECM recording, betraying no trace of audience noise, is taken from that run of performances. Händl Klaus’s libretto, in which the original song cycle fragments are embedded, depicts episodes from the poet’s life (including his trip to the US in 1832, and his attempt to start a new life there), but presents them in a non-narrative, entirely non-linear way, as if recalled randomly by Lenau in a dream. There are just five solo singers – three sopranos who play seven characters in Lenau’s life, and two baritones, one of whom is the poet, the other his alter ego Anton Xaver Schurz, who wrote a biography of Lenau, and was responsible for saving what survives of his final writings. A chorus of 12 voices echoes the protagonists, but though the sound world is hugely varied and imaginative, the ensemble of 14 players is only rarely used as a whole, so that the textures are always spare and chamber-like, the mood always intimate yet intense.
Lenau was an accomplished violinist, and a solo violin features prominently in the score, with a cimbalom also prominent, adding its characteristic tang. As well as references to other composers and musical forms there’s a strong autobiographical element, with quotations from Holliger’s earlier works and from those of his teacher Sándor Veress, too, yet the intricate patchwork of musical, historical and literary allusions never overwhelms the central, tragic portrait of Lenau, which Gerhaher projects so potently. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, especially Ivan Ludlow as Schurz and Juliane Banse as Sophie von Löwenthal, a married women with whom Lenau had an intense though apparently platonic relationship. There’s no pretending that Lunea is an easy work to get on terms with, it’s never straightforward. But it is an immensely imaginative opera, full of very beautiful, fragile music.