Friday 13 January 2023

Imagining the unimaginable: Noah Max's opera A Child in Striped Pyjamas

Max: A Child In Striped Pyjamas - Susanna MacRae, Rachel Roper - (Photo: Bonnie Britain)
Max: A Child In Striped Pyjamas - Susanna MacRae, Rachel Roper - (Photo: Bonnie Britain)

Noah Max: A Child in Striped Pyjamas; Susanna MacRae, Rachel Roper, Jeremy Huw Williams, Xavier Hetherington, Echo Ensemble, dir: Guido Martin Brandis, conductor: Noah Max; The Cockpit Theatre
Reviewed 11 January 2023

An impressive first opera on a profoundly challenging subject, an intensely serious and thoughtful evening that did not quite take wing

Composer Noah Max has chosen a challenging subject indeed for his first opera. Max's A Child in Striped Pyjamas, which premiered on Wednesday 11 January 2023 at the Cockpit with Max conducting his own Echo Ensemble, has a libretto based on John Boyne's 2006 Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Max, who was his own librettist, has boiled Boyne's novel down to half a dozen scenes, with just four characters the Jewish Child (Rachel Roper), the German Child (Susanna MacRae), the Father (Jeremy Huw Williams) and Lieutenant Kobler (Xavier Hetherington) accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of string quartet, clarinet and trumpet. Boyne's novel is deliberately set as a fable and has been criticised for its historical accuracy. Whilst an element of child's-eye-view remains in Max's opera, the work is definitely an adult piece written for adult audiences, and the stylised realism of the opera includes references to the more disturbing aspects of the history behind the story.

This raises the question of how realistic a work of art needs to be, particularly when discussing difficult topics. Composers such as RVW, Bliss and Ravel who served during World War One were notable for producing works of art that only touched tangentially on the horrors experienced (RVW's Pastoral Symphony, Bliss' Morning Heroes and Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin).

Max's libretto emphasises the element of neo-realism in the opera, there are no soliloquies, no interior monologues and all information is conveyed via dialogue. This means that there are no arias, as such, and we never quite see into the adult characters, the Father and Lieutenant Kobler, they remain more as symbols or cyphers. The core of the work is the series of scenes for the German Child and the Jewish Child, long stretches of dialogue for the two. Whilst we do develop a feel for these two characters, Max has deliberately avoided the names that Boyne gives his characters, and for Max the two children are in fact two sides of the same child.

But within this structure, there are striking elements of a more abstract nature as Max writes a series of instrumental interludes that are interpolated between the scenes, whilst the beginning and end of the opera mix instrumental contributions with Jewish liturgical chant. I found these elements to be some of the strongest in the opera, and the way the ending became a meditation on the tragic death of the two children was a striking element. 

I could have wished that Max the librettist had been a bit more daring, a bit more poetic in his constructions. As it was we had the awkward realism of Lieutenant Kobler's intense violence towards the Jewish Child at the end of Act One, and the death of the two children in the gas chamber at the end of Act Two, not to mention the two German adults repeated (and correct) use of 'Heil' when greeting each other. I would have favoured an approach that relied more on imagination and less on realistic detail, as it was Max had to create music that was suitably disturbing to match these moments and inevitably, perhaps, I felt did not quite succeed. Music is best when being oblique and suggesting rather than being intensely descriptive.

For the main scenes in the opera, Max wrote a sort of fluid, continuous arioso for the singers and accompanied this with instrumental music of striking business and imagination. You felt that his initial impulse for the work seemed instrumental and indeed when the soloists were allowed to take flight, the vocal writing had an instrumental cast to it. But for large parts of the dialogues for the two children, the vocal writing seemed to be rarely able to move away from a rather careful, four-square neo-recitative. This relied on the instrumental contributions to bring the scenes to life, and the vocal writing though it conveyed the text, rather failed to catch the imagination.

Giudo Martin-Brandis' production was simple and effective, though this too emphasised the realism of the narrative. Did we really need the element of barbed wire fence that needed moving at the end of each scene, and was it really necessary to have such a precisely laid out dining scene for the Father, the German Child and Lieutenant Kobler. 

This was a deeply felt and highly serious undertaking; how could it not be when the events depicted touch on Max's own family history (his great grandparents fled Vienna and narrowly missed the same fate as the opera's Jewish characters). His music, particularly the instrumental writing, has a strongly serious and imaginative cast to it with a very profound approach to the drama. However, I felt that as an opera, the work did not always take wing. 

Susannna MacRae and Rachel Roper as the German Child and the Jewish Child provided strong performances and these are both substantial roles with significant amounts of stage time. MacRae's voice was slightly on the light side, but both singers made creditable children and my biggest gripe was that the text did not always carry well. Jeremy Huw Williams and Xavier Hetherington made brave attempts at the Father and Lieutenant Kobler but the two characters remain rather cyphers. It would have been interesting to explore the Father's character and motivations further, but that would move the opera further into the adult realm and away from Boyne's novel. As it was, at the end, we have in a way to sympathise with the Father on the tragic loss of his child, yet we do not really know him enough to do so.

This was an impressive effort for a first opera on such a challenging subject. Both performances were sold out, which in itself is a fine achievement, and I do hope that Max builds on the work's strengths to create a revised version that addresses the subject even more powerfully.

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