An essay by Kerstin Schüssler-Bach

The woman from the sea

Detlev Glanert’s eleventh work of musical theatre, Oceane, is based on a fragment of a novel by Fontane. Commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the opera is scheduled to premiere with a star line-up in April 2019.

“The day drew to a close, another dawned; Oceane was gone.” With that spare but dramatic statement Fontane announces the departure of his enigmatic title character from this world. In his literary fragment, Oceane von Parceval, the poet again places a mysterious, modern Melusine-type entity at the centre of events. Right up to his final novel, Der Stechlin, Fontane’s works regularly feature young women who at once fascinate and provoke with their extravagant ways and essential naturalness.

Detlev Glanert, a dedicated reader and man of letters, encountered the Fontane original many years ago and in his hands the material has now taken on the dimensions of an opera. He teamed up with Hans-Ulrich Treichel, author of the libretto for CALIGULA, to produce a scenography that could render the pauses and caesurae of Fontane’s draft in tonal form. The romancier of bourgeois realism, whose bicentenary in 2019 will be the occasion for much celebration in Berlin and throughout Brandenburg, captured the social conventions of his age in polished dialogues, with conversation standing in for explicit action. The task, therefore, was to adapt Oceane von Parceval for the stage and slightly exaggerate characters and situations for effect. During Germany’s Imperial period the young Oceane von Parceval arrives in a seaside town with her companion, Kristina, and proceeds to stir up the hotel guests with her nonchalant behaviour. Martin von Dircksen, a young landowner, pictures the enigmatic beauty as his future wife. Pastor Baltzer, however, leads local resistance to the woman, who is quite comfortable defying conventions while also desperately trying to find her niche in society. Martin’s affections seem to offer a path to this stolidity, yet Oceane’s ties to the elemental nature of her existence is stronger and she ends up returning to the sea whence she came.

Nymph-like creatures have featured in many a work of art or literature, often as Melusine, a rusalka or an undine. Like her sisters, Oceane appears to be a figment of male-gaze fantasy, yet her tragic quality derives from her realisation that she will never be able to fulfil her desire for love and human closeness. Martin, too, whose wishes are too much for her, never manages to penetrate her glass wall. Therein lies, in Detlev Glanert’s eyes, a thoroughly modern psychological predicament for a character who is unable to communicate with the outside world, despite the intensity of her yearnings. Martin, who represents a new order anchored in capital and efficiency, is denied access to Oceane’s individualistic inner world. Glanert gives the chorus a special part to play, the ensemble not only representing a sharply delineated society but also conveying the voice of the sea, a voice that connects Oceane to her element. Glanert has conferred on each character his or her distinct sound, playing with assignations from the operatic tradition.

For this commissioned work, instigated by Artistic Director Dietmar Schwarz, the Deutsche Oper Berlin has attracted a number of renowned artists. General Music Director Donald Runnicles, who conducted the world premiere of Glanert’s Brahms-Fantasie in 2012, will be at the stand. The opera is directed by Robert Carsen, with the key roles sung by Maria Bengtsson and Nikolai Schukoff. Not for nothing has Detlev acquired a reputation as a composer who knows how to write for individual voices. Very early in the creative process he was already in talks and rehearsals with the soloists for OCEANE. Glanert has repeatedly shown that he sees opera as a collective art form.

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