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Manfred Trojahn’s Septembersonate by Johannes Erath and Vitali Alekseenok



Septembersonate, Germany 2022, World Premiere. Composed and written by Manfred Trojahn, based on a short story by Henry James. Production by Johannes Erath, conducted by Vitali Alekseenok.

Deutsche Oper am Rhein, First Tier, Row 9, Seats 293+294.

(This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, at my Instagram account betweendrafts.)

Trojahn’s latest opera hadn’t appeared on my radar (he’s such a prolific composer, it’s impossible to keep track), so when a friend asked me to join her on short notice, I was thoroughly unprepared. But the introduction, by dramaturge Anna Melcher, was delightful and thoughtful and informative and engaged and put me on track.

The production was excellent, and so was Heike Scheele’s monochromatic stage design: deep black with dynamic props outlined by white neon that emphasized the libretto’s ghostly/dreamy elements and played on the imagery of that early twentieth-century New York we’ve all been conditioned to by film noir. As for the libretto, there were dialogues early on with stock ideas about how America is and Americans are that Germans like to entertain, but it got a lot better after setup and backstory. Then, video projections were employed, created by Bibi Abel. I’m not usually a great fan of projections as they’re too often feel like a cop-out, but in this case they presented scenes played by the actors and filmed on stage, distorted and in multiple layers, that fit everything perfectly.

The music is greatly enjoyable; I would have been surprised if it had been otherwise. Both orchestration and instrumentation are highly unusual, basically a chamber orchestra with fifteen instrumentalists and no violins, whose unfamiliar soundscape is a great fit for the libretto. The singers were terrific, even if the orchestra had too often the right of way. (That chamber orchestra did pack a punch.) As for the composition itself, it’s modern but not too modern, mostly comfortably early modern, and more than occasionally strongly reminiscent of Schoenberg on the one hand and Richard Strauss on the other, with recurring impressionist motifs mixed in and assorted programmatic elements.

Grand opera it isn’t, but that’s not what it aspires to be. It’s a chamber play accompanied by a chamber orchestra, albeit with operatic force, that doesn’t focus on dramatic events but internal torments.

(As an aside, the protagonist’s doppelganger’s mask was eerily reminiscent of David Lynch’s Rabbits.)

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