Review: ATTHIS, Royal Opera House

Viennese musicologist Wolfgang Schaufler said: “to experience the music of Georg Friedrich Haas means letting go… making a journey to an unknown destination” and Haas certainly takes us on a journey with his intense realisation of an disintegrating love affair, exploring lost love and suffering.

Following the story of eponymous Atthis and her teacher, the ancient Greek poet Sappho, Haas’s song cycle set to fragments of Sappho’s poetry, provides the main bulk of the performance, preceded by his Second String Quartet.

Haas, most widely known for his critically acclaimed work, in vain (2000), who boasts Simon Rattle as a fan and is recognised as one of today’s leading contemporary composers, used Schubert’s Winterreise as inspiration, but with a “happy ending”, and Schubert’s love for drama is certainly recognisable in this hour long performance.

Through his use of complex polyphonic constructions, paired with temporal expansions and compressions, Haas exploits the timbres and tonal limits of his eight-piece ensemble, producing an intimate and haunting effect. Moments of tonal clarity provide relief in this immersion into the sound world, injected with microtones and virtuosic extremities.

The London Sinfonietta does an excellent job of navigating this difficult score, under the baton of French composer, Pierre-André Valade. Dancers Laure Bachelot and Rachel Maybank, provide an interesting visual asset to the opening String Quartet, punctuating the score with pulsations of movement, whilst the strings weave in and out of audibility, overtones momentarily existent.

The set is plain, allowing for focus on the vivid images projected on the giant moon-shaped backdrop. The show’s director, Netia Jones, also takes credit for designs and video projections, which accompany the score so well. Her exploration of light and darkness through nocturnal and earthly images, effectively guide us through Sappho’s journey of pain and torment, and her eye for visual innovation makes her background in Baroque opera seem almost hard to believe.

As with many contemporary scores, this is exceptionally demanding on the voice, requiring complete command of instrument, as Haas treats us to jolted leaps, stretching glissandos and a merge of speech and song-like qualities. This could only call for British soprano Claire Booth, who previously worked with Jones at the Linbury on Kafka Fragments during the 2012/13 season. Booth’s flexibility and delicacy of tone, combined with her powerful higher register, provided the versatility that Haas’s score requires. Performed perched on a platform suspended ten feet from the ground, she certainly demonstrated her exceptional control, as she reflected on her despair, “Never more will I come to you”, with angelic clarity and convincing distress.

ATTHIS is far from conventional. Haas’s intent on reinventing Austro-German music and defiance of the classical past is evident, as are his connections with spectralism. Yet, somehow, he manages to avoid any discomfort to the ear, despite constant dissonance and atonal tendencies. His focus on using music as a means of depicting raw human emotion produces a sonorous, yet beautiful effect, making this experience a wholly poignant and evocative one.

Haas returns to the Royal Opera for the premiere of his opera Morgen und Abend in November 2015. I look forward to the next journey that this exciting composer will invite us to take.

ATTHIS played at the Royal Opera House. For more information, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Netia Jones.