Snow has the habit of freezing out superfluous sensory stimuli: sound is muffled by it, colour is powdered over. So what setting could be more apt for a minimalistic contemporary opera than a snowy Armageddon? The end of the world in a fantastic frozen wasteland is the premise of Austrian composer Beat Furrer’s Violetter Schnee (Violet Snow), which celebrated its world premiere on Sunday at Berlin’s Staatsoper. And that’s Beat as in the not-so-common German forename Beh-utt by the way, not a nod to the Beat Generation.
Contemporary scores can pose a challenge for casual operagoers and seasoned enthusiasts alike. The absence of a familiar harmonic structure can make pieces difficult to follow and performances hard to sit through, especially if you’re trying to keep up the act of being oh-so into it. Violetter Schnee, however, offers something for the ear to hold on to. It pulls the ear in, dragging it into a fight of conflicting harmonies, throwing it around from instrument to instrument before shaking it awake with sudden silences. But it’s also a feast for the eyes: a tasteful Day After Tomorrow meets Lost Highway extravaganza (stage design: Claus Guth).
It begins with five people in a dining room during a raging blizzard with no end in sight. Even though the situation outside is catastrophic and the sun seems to have disappeared from the world, they try to keep up an air of routine: by burning fine furniture for heat and brewing tea out of melted snow and fir branches. But there’s no point in keeping up the façade of normality much longer, so they each climb a dreary staircase up into a freezing and fearful unknown.
Such an apocalyptic setting could have been a neat framework for the characters’ story arcs, allowing them to explore fundamental questions of humanity in the face of obliteration. But Violetter Schnee is not half as interested in people as it is in the cosmic; in the constant, uncontrollable, unstoppable changing of things. As the story develops, the soloists merge with the orchestra and the choir, becoming less tangible as individuals. Opera lovers who want to hear characters explore their inner conflicts in arias will be disappointed. This isn’t that kind of opera. Individual narrative threads are picked up, but never followed – we’re not supposed to care about these people, their past or whether they survive. We’re supposed to care about the fact that the world is changing, that there is nothing we can do about it – and that there is beauty in that.
Violetter Schnee is a live painting; a sculpture of sound – and very much an ensemble piece. Instead of trying to outshine each other as soloists, the cast artfully blend in with one another and the orchestra. Each knows exactly when to emerge from the painting as an individual and when to dissolve back into it.
Eventually, a newly risen violet sun will obliterate them all. And we, the audience, will be none the wiser. In Violetter Schnee there is no moral. No political message, even though the climate change metaphor is waved quite blatantly in front of us. There is only aesthetic force, at times delicate, at others brutal – and then: silence.
Violetter Schnee | Jan 14, 16, 24, 26, 31, 19:30, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Mitte