An opera which premiered in Munich recently tells of the race for the South Pole in a deathly competition between explorers.
Viewers of “South Pole” might have expected a different grand finale, perhaps where British explorer Robert F. Scott and his competitor, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, discard their tarpaulin and seal skins to reveal them as refugees in the hostile 21st century.
It doesn’t happen that way.
By the end of the piece, Scott is still who he probably was, a self-tortured psychopath who loses the race to the South Pole.
Ultimately he freezes to death while Amundsen has long ago returned home as victor and hero.
The opera, by Czech composer Miroslav Srnka, tells of the race in 1911 to reach the South Pole. It pitted Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team against Robert Scott’s British expedition. Amundsen won by 33 days while Scott died on his way to base.
The polar explorers from a century ago could just as well be two Syrians from Aleppo who try their luck in Germany in 2016, or simply two people who risk everything.
The piece shows the characters of Scott and Amundsen driven by the burdens they bear in their personal lives.
Musically, the opera signals with notes the musical Morse code the telegram announcing Scott’s death. It feels like Wagner’s Nibelheim, a region of Germanic and Norse mythology, imprisoned in eternal ice.
This piece still has an explosive relevance today.
In “South Pole,” Tom Holloway’s grandiose libretto and Czech composer Miroslav Srnka’s magnificent music make the abstract specific. Radically, the piece shows how humans come into the world naked, as it were. The polar explorers from a century ago could just as well be two Syrians from Aleppo who try their luck in Germany in 2016, or simply two people who risk everything.
The director, Hans Neuenfels, doesn’t over do it with youngsters as allegories or written proclamations.
Mr. Neuenfels’ only store of symbols consist of animals — the ponies on Scott’s side and the dogs in Amundsen’s team. They’re played by extras with masks in silhouette. When they all die of exhaustion and hunger in the sixth scene, the choreography shows a massacre accompanied by strokes of a wooden mallet.
The setting is the Antarctic — a glistening white cube with entrances and exits, from which there is no escape. The igloo’s icy interior is utopia in its most dire form. The South Pole is marked by a black cross which is nothing more than a figure that’s been calculated.
When Amundsen reaches it, he rams the Norwegian flag into the ice and sets up camp. But nothing has been gained and we see that all struggle ultimately occurs only for the sake of the struggle, whatever the cost in lives, happiness and love.
The piece is called a “double opera” and tells of the two explorers’ journeys and the symmetry of events. It’s reflected in complex musical structures and also in the two teams of singers – Scott and his men are tenors, while Amundsen leads a group of baritones.
There are more parallels. The stage is divided in two sections, one group of explorers has ponies, the others dogs. One group uses motorized sleds, the other is on skis.
As Scott breathes his last death rattle, Amundsen prances about the other part of the stage in a white tie and tails.
There are also two women. Scott’s wife Kathleen is a humble, black-clad widow from the very beginning. She’s set in contrast to the landlady who long ago killed herself out of disappointment and love for Amundsen. She is barefoot, in a white nightdress. The director apparently doesn’t trust himself to handle the feminine element other than with this sort of crazed revenant figure who stays a conventional projection.
This could be disappointing but then there’s a quartet scene that causes everything to be forgiven. The music moves between Purcell’s idiomatic frost scene, Beethoven’s quartet from Fidelio, with touches from English composer Benjamin Britten. It tells of a a yearning that drives the two women into an emphatic crescendo. In defiance of snowstorms, latitude and epoch, the director has the two women extend their hands toward each other, like Gretel and Gretel.
Why write a 21st century opera about the conquest of the South Pole?
One answer is Mr. Srnka’s orchestration which encompasses live electronic music, accordion, harp, piano for four hands, six horns and clarinets, in addition to rainmakers, egg-rattles, singing bowls, cowbells, sandpaper, ratchets, elastic springs, egg cutters and other exotic items in the percussion section. They combine to create great color – and white.
Conducted by Kirill Petrenko, the Bavarian State Orchestra breathes life into a new, exciting composition. The audience is haunted by the cold, crackles, clangor, whistles and howls.
“South Pole” is bound for a splendid run.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org