‘You cannot hold happiness captive in sealed caves, / for it only breathes in flight’
After a sea voyage lasting three years, Elis Fröbom returns to his homeland, which no longer feels like a home. His father’s death was soon followed by that of his mother, his parent’s house is now inhabited by strangers, and no trace remains of his personal possessions. He is grabbed by a feeling of revulsion towards life, induced by the lascivious society in which he is stranded without any sense of belonging. Even love seems like a grand delusion, concealing the sadness of an existence that he would rather trade for death.
He then meets Torbern, an undead miner wandering through the centuries and looking for someone who, like himself, feels an intuitive allegiance to another world. The old man allows the young sailor to descend into the realm of the mountain queen. Elis is fascinated by her timeless beauty, freed from mortality and suffering. To be able to stay with her, he must first live as a miner and prove that he can renounce all human desires. Torbern, who hopes that Elis might succeed him as the mountain queen’s servant, shows him the way to Falun. Elis stays here with the hard-up mine owner Dahljöh, his daughter Anna and her blind grandmother. The family’s former prosperity is soon restored by Elis’s hard work, and he falls in love with the young girl. No sooner a wedding is in the offing than he feels guilty, because he cannot return the unconditional love expressed by the high-spirited and nature-loving Anna. The mountain queen’s underground realm just won’t let him go. On the day of the wedding, he disappears into the depths of the mountain forever.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal based this play on a true story that had been drawn on by many writers before him. In 1719, the body of a miner was found in the Swedish town of Falun. An elderly woman recognized her erstwhile bridegroom, who hadn’t been able to keep his promise of marriage nearly 50 years before. Though now dead, he appears as she remembers him, untouched by time. Hofmannsthal, with his great knowledge of literature and science, drew inspiration from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s account of the story and at the same time realized his own version of the tale. In the character of the young Elis, he recognized the ‘transcendental homelessness’ (as Georg Lukács later phrased it) of Nietzsche’s modern man, and was made aware, by Freud, of the emotional instability of this existence. With allusions to Romantic nature poetry, fairy tales and poetic tradition, such as the pact in Goethe’s Faust, the 25-year-old Hofmannsthal was purposefully looking for his place amid the literary greats. And he certainly succeeded in impressively portraying the powerlessness of the individual at the beginning of the 20th century, which later authors such as Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett carried forward from their own perspective. How can people take care of themselves and cope with life in times of crisis? Hofmannsthal’s answer for us comes in the form of his unique, lyrical language, which shows that beauty can be preserved only through poetry.
Hofmannsthal wrote the play in 1899, but it was never published in its entirety during his lifetime. It was not until 1932 that the work appeared in full, and it was hardly performed thereafter. Jossi Wieler, who has made his mark in the theatre world with remarkable productions, has chosen this unusual text for his directorial return to the Salzburg Festival. In Salzburg he has directed a Hofmannsthal text once before, with his 2001 production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne being voted performance of the year in a critics’ poll. Wieler was awarded the Hans-Reinhart-Ring, the most prestigious Swiss award for theatre, in 2020. German magazines have voted him ‘director of the year’ more than once for both his theatre and opera stagings. In 2009 his production of Elfriede Jelinek’s Rechnitz was awarded the Nestroy Theatre Prize for best German-language production. After his tenure as artistic director of the Stuttgart State Opera from 2011 to 2018, he is now active as a freelance director and most recently worked at the Deutsches Theater Berlin.
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw