Aribert Reimann Lear
Opera in two parts (1976-78)
Libretto by Claus H. Henneberg after William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear in the German translation (1777) by Johann Joachim Eschenburg
Sung in German with German and English surtitles
Print programme (PDF)
Gerald Finley, King Lear
Tilmann Rönnebeck, King of France
Derek Welton, Duke of Albany
Michael Colvin, Duke of Cornwall
Matthias Klink, Earl of Kent
Lauri Vasar, Earl of Gloucester
Kai Wessel, Edgar
Charles Workman, Edmund
Evelyn Herlitzius, Goneril
Gun-Brit Barkmin, Regan
Anna Prohaska, Cordelia
Michael Maertens, Fool
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
Huw Rhys James, Chorus Master
‘Father, acknowledge the impotency of your state’
Aribert Reimann gives his opera based on Shakespeare’s tragedy the unadorned title of Lear, omitting the royal title: a bald monosyllable for a hero who loses everything he had assumed to be certain, who like almost none other is thrown back upon his naked humanity. ‘Man in his nakedness is nothing but a wretched, forked animal’, says Lear, wandering around as an outcast in the no-man’s-land of the heath. On his journey through loneli-ness and misery, agony and madness, for a long time he is unable to grasp that it was only his power that made him unassailable. But he has given this away: tired of his duties as ruler, Lear divides his kingdom between his daughters at the beginning of the action, that is, between Goneril and Regan, who give their father the eloquent verbal displays of affection he asks for. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, denies her father this hypocritical adulation and thus her obedience. He thereupon disowns her and she follows the king of France to his country as a wife without a dowry.
Lear’s ceremonial division of the kingdom is ‘tantamount to a verdict of guilt’, according to Reimann. From then on, almost everything goes against him. The action takes a course in which private or familial tensions, which have perhaps been smouldering for a long time, political struggles and existential experiences are closely interwoven. ‘Acknowledge the impotency of your state’, screams Goneril at her burdensome father, who still tries to domineer over her, and Regan locks the old man out of the house, abandoning him to the elements. Soon rivals, Goneril and Regan will stop at nothing in their hunger for power, and steer events into a bloody, apocalyptic maelstrom. Their chief ally is Edmund, who is no less ruthless than the two sisters. Invoking Nature, he rebels against the traditional order that denies him the rights accorded to his legitimate half-brother Edgar and denigrates him to his father, Gloucester. When the latter, who disapproves of Goneril’s and Regan’s cruelty, comes to Lear’s aid, Edmund unhesitatingly goes over to the side of those in power and does nothing to prevent his father’s eyes being brutally put out as punishment for his treachery. Gloucester, in a way a parallel figure to Lear, is left with the sole hope of death; he joins the ranks of those who topple from the heights to rock bottom in an instant, outcasts in a world in the grip of chaos.
Lear is reunited with Cordelia, his saviour, only to lose her for good. Does his destiny have any other goal but death? No, say those who see in Shakespeare’s drama a forerunner of the Theatre of the Absurd, a grotesque endgame: nihilism as the answer to interpretations that accord a ‘meaning’ to Lear’s story, understanding it as a process towards a higher state of consciousness, towards (self-)knowledge or inner purification. Or does the play demonstrate to us the paradox that ‘we can only learn through suffering’, but ‘have nothing to learn from it’, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell put it? These are not the only questions thrown up by Lear that always and most profoundly also touch our own existence and our own times; they are what evoked Reimann’s interest in the subject matter in the first place.
The initial idea for the opera originated with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and occupied Reimann (soon in concert with the librettist Claus H. Henneberg) for several years before he began work on the actual composition in 1976. Premiered in Munich in 1978, Lear gave him his international breakthrough and over many further productions has maintained its status as one of the most important music theatre works of the past few decades. The music enables the audience to experience the action as a sequence of existential borderline situations – with an immediacy that is touching and stirring, sometimes even unsettling. Reimann’s highly individual, radical musical language displays an extraordinary tonal and expressive range extending from the most intimate internalization to explosions of untrammelled violence.
Translated by Sophie Kidd