Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952), one of the great outsiders in the history of classical music, never saw a production of his allegorical opera Antikrist ("Antichrist"). In fact, even though he completed his revision of the opera in 1930, it wasn't until 1999 that the opera was produced, and then in Innsbruck. It took the Royal Danish Opera more than six decades to correct their mistake; this production from 2002, in alliance with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, is an outstanding – albeit too long delayed – "correction."
The composer's apocalyptic libretto is not easily understood. There is no plot, per se, and there are no real characters. In six scenes (with a prologue and a finale), Langgaard depicts humankind under the sway of materialism, blind progress, platitudes, pleasure-seeking, and arrogance, all because of the power of the Antichrist. In effect, Man has replaced God with himself. Throughout the opera, humankind struggles to find meaning and to justify itself, amid the chaos of life and self-proclaimed prophets who are agents of the Antichrist. Finally, by bringing the world to an end, God brings the Antichrist's power to an end. We are reminded in the closing chorus that only He has the ability to give meaning and purpose to life. Langgaard was influenced by the music of Richard Strauss, and also by his countryman Carl Nielsen, but despite those similarities, the daring and iconoclasm of this score are unique. One feels Langgaard both loving and despising the decadence of "modern" music in this opera.
Antikrist is as difficult to grasp upon a single viewing as it is to sing and stage, and this DVD gives viewers every opportunity to comprehend Langgaard's radical treatment of a reactionary theme. The bonus material includes a 13-minute documentary on the composer and his opera, and I recommend watching it before tackling the opera itself. Also, the opera can be viewed with a subtitled commentary by the conductor. (There's also brief footage of Langgaard as a conductor, but it is silent.) The booklet contains several essays, and these are very helpful as well.
The production, while not literally faithful to Langgaard's vision, is visually and conceptually striking. The soberly dressed singers (they reminded me of characters from a Carl Dreyer film) play many "roles," if you will, but they essentially represent a civilization in decay. Stage director Staffan Valdemar Holm enhances the opera's mood of despair and horror by engaging the singers in activities which often seem fatuous or useless. Nor can the role of Linus Fellbom's lighting be overestimated as well. What really gives this DVD special immediacy, however, is the camera-work, which seems to bring us right on the stage with the singers, so much so that there were moments when I felt dizzy or on the verge of stage fright – surely an appropriate reaction in an opera as challenging as this one!
This is an ensemble opera, and everyone pulls their weight and then some. Voices of Wagnerian proportions are required in the later scenes – and Susanne Resmark and Camilla Nylund do not fail to hurl their voices over the orchestra pit as if the notes were fiery comets falling on the Earth. The orchestral playing is a tour de force, and the chorus, finally appearing on stage at the very end of the opera, is appropriately moving. Both the sound and video quality of the DVD are superb.
I can think of few opera DVDs which use the medium as effectively as this one. Furthermore, given its difficulties, Antikrist is perfectly suited to release on DVD. Here's an opera (and a DVD) to ponder and ponder again when one tires of more traditional fare.
Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle