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Simplicius Simplicissimus, Independent Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Simplicius Simplicissimus, Independent Opera

Simplicius Simplicissimus, Independent Opera

Polly Graham breathes fiery life into Hartmann's flawed drama

Explosively physical : Stephanie Corley as Simplicius with Governor (Mark Le Broq)© Max Lacome

“Not as a pleasurable play, but…an urgent message…” So composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann described his caustic chamber opera Simplicius Simplicissimus, receiving its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells 81 years late. Five years before Brecht used the Thirty Years War for Mother Courage, Hartmann found in its orgy of brutality a resonance with the rise of National Socialism.

His libretto sets part of Grimmelshausen’s 17th-century picaresque tale of a holy fool whose innocence protects him in a world of mercenary violence. Polly Graham’s explosively physical production for Independent Opera harnesses its outrage to fiery effect.

Designer Nate Gibson locates the action in the attic of a bombed-out house, hanging precariously out across half the stage, strewn with leather suitcases, hiding-place of Simplicius (persuasively boyish Stephanie Corley, part Just William, part Sue Perkins). It’s a platform subject to continual assault from every angle in a helter-skelter of brilliantly choreographed scenes (by Michael Spenceley). As a sulphuric overture flickers into life, Simplicius is swept up in a vicious pantomime by the all-male chorus: attack, pillage, rape, starvation, children born and disposed of. We could be in Aleppo.

In three acts our "simplest simpleton" encounters the barbaric Soldier (a menacing William Dazeley in tremendous voice, pictured below), Hermit, who shelters and teaches him, then dies in a lyric middle act (a querulous but touching Adrian Thompson) and the depraved Governor, who appoints him court jester (Mark Le Brocq, sinister in pink, a giant, bonneted baby orchestrating gang rape). The chorus hurtle in and out of the action, as soldiers, sheep and ingenious parts of society’s overburdened tree, which appears to Simplicius in a dream.

There’s a streak of crude agit-prop theatre in the mix, with much of the text spoken: David Pountney’s translation is fresh, demotic, capturing the text’s brute misogyny ("Her curly hair is shiny like a pool of baby poo") and cynicism ("Our Lord in heaven, hollow be thy name"). Graham deals with the two-dimensional nature of some scenes with physical theatre (including a supper eaten off dancer Chiara Vinci’s stretched, naked body), and artful but spare projection (Will Duke).

Hartmann’s score is a knottier problem: interludes of serial, contrapuntal complexity grind against brittle Stravinskian marches and unmemorable songs on stage. A rag-bag of styles take us from the balm of a Bach chorale to locker-room polka ("Fornication is woman’s occupation") with no strong sense of overarching structure. The scoring (here in its enlarged 1957 version, with added percussion) is alive with arresting sonorities: flutter-tongued trumpet and flute against muted strings as a nightingale sings, a mournful viola arioso rising out of percussive splinters. Hartmann, like Hindemith, was at his best in a lament, and his most haunting music comes at the Hermit’s death, when Simplicius sings a cantilena for his deliverance in a halo of eery gongs. Here, Corley gives sonorous weight to the work’s one emotional centre.

But for all Timothy Redmond’s galvanising authority, this soloistic scoring is cruelly exposing, and the Britten Sinfonia didn't sound sufficiently prepared, something which can only improve in further performances. Hartmann demands fiendish attention to detail, even though his musical goals can seem elusive and unyielding. This is a brave, furious protest from a composer who chose – and survived –  "internal emigration". But its revolutionary climax feels generic. Hartmann would not lend his talent to the theatre again.

Simplicius is subject to continual assault in a helter-skelter of brilliantly choreographed scenes


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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