Scartazzini’s Sandmann at Theater Basel
Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini has composed Der Sandmann after E. T. A. Hoffmann’s night piece for the Theater Basel. The libretto is by Thomas Jonigk. (First performance on 20 October 2012)
Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann, one of the most famous night pieces of literary Romanticism, is already part of the great operatic repertoire. Numerous themes from the story are related in Jacques Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, particularly in the portrayal of Olympia: there, the artist falls in love with the marionette Olympia and mirrors his ego in the stereotypical “yes” and “no” of the mechanical doll, and there the eery scenes around Coppelius and Spalanzani’s primeval fears become true. In the original E. T. A. Hoffmann story (often also classified as a Gothic novel), the fairy tale figure, now regarded as cosy and cute, is turned into a frightening counterpart. The Sandman sprinkles sand in people’s eyes, in order to then pull them out and murder his victims.
Der Sandmann is Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini’s second opera, with an equally exciting subject matter as his first work in the genre, WUT. Thomas Jonigk’s ingenious libretto transfers the story of the Sandman to the present, setting it in the milieu of a budding writer who inhabits a world between delusion and reality. Nathanael seems to be traumatised by events in his childhood; in his imagination, his father and his lackey Coppelius pursue him, and turn out to be manipulating the strings of events. It only seems as if his fiancée Clara and her brother Lothar represent a world governed by rationality, an alternative to the madness into which Nathanael disappears. For the complex story cannot easily be reduced to a single case, as might be found in a medical report or in magazine headlines. Like his famous original, Jonigk drives a subtle game with levels of reality, with dreamed-of or fabricated reality, and certainly leaves space for ghostly manifestations and the spirit world. At the end the “true” reality could also be that of the two string-pullers who celebrate the entire cast and fate as their invention, along with their mechanical doll Clarissa, the yes-woman counterpart to Clara.
Jonigk describes his piece as a “psychological, metaphysical thriller”. Finally, according to the librettist, “the romanticism of the subject matter describes in a very simple way something which is extremely current: the dilemma of a mankind that has reached the limits of enlightenment and glances upwards into the heavens it is alienated from is evident – imploring a God in whom it no longer believes. Earlier still, meaningful metaphysical systems seem to comprise only uninterested particles of elements; great feelings such as love are reinterpreted as neurotic forced postures, disguised ego problems or in an all-suffocating, competitive sexuality...”.
Scartazzini’s Der Sandmann is an action opera for five protagonists, chorus and orchestra. The subject matter becomes the basis for what the composer intended as “extremely theatrical music”, as he explained in conversation. He very decidedly wanted to write an action opera, because something such as empathy is possible in it.
Marie Luise Maintz
Questions to Andrea Scartazzini
The story of the Sandman takes place with changing levels of reality which exist alongside each other. Often it’s not clear where we are, in insanity, a dream or reality. There is certainly a special attraction in being able to play with these levels. How do you approach this in writing the music?
Scartazzini: the different levels – reality, insanity, the spirit world – are deliberately not distinguished from each other. The transitions must remain fluid in order to convey the experience of the main figure Nathanael’s insecurity. Indeed, the feeling of the uncanny stems from the fact that you do not know where you are. Even with E. T. A. Hoffmann there are quite different variant readings. The light of understanding is limited, a kind of darkness remains, existing from aporia, which is quite important for the atmosphere of the piece. I always find myself on shaky ground. Admittedly, you can provide a more rational approach to the plot and, for example, say that Nathanael suffers from psychosis and delusions, that he himself generates these ideas. And yet, time and time again there are moments which place in question this simple explanation.
Ultimately in the piece the interpretation remains open as to which figures and situations are the real ones, and which are the invented ones. The conclusion could be read so that the reality is inverted and the entire cast could be the invention of the Father and Coppelius. How do you interpret this fictional framework in your composition?
In my opinion, there is a special charm in allowing the openness to exist. It fascinates me that you could also say that it is ghosts or spirits to which these figures are exposed. Or that heterogenous parts exist which do not fit with each other. The meta-level of rational attempts at decoding is only partly important for me as a composer because I do not simply reason about the figures, but want to awaken them to life musically in their multifaceted richness. It is precisely the many and diverse breaks or the recurring loops which trigger the oppressive feeling; moments appear like a déjà-vu, a trauma, in which you are caught and from which you cannot escape. The rationale is secondary.
How do you approach the task of creating a ghostly atmosphere which repeatedly confronts theatrical moments, such as the sudden shooting of Nathanael?
A ghostly atmosphere and theatrical moments are not mutually exclusive, on the contrary: it is precisely the completely unexpected shooting of Nathanael which is most distressing in its abruptness. But naturally I have created a vocabulary of ghostliness. And in addition there are musical atmospheres for people and situations. For example, there is the scene with the writer reading. Nathanael is acclaimed by an enthusiastic audience for his novel. The music for the reading is far too “grand”, too loud, too affirmative for what it is portraying. The impression is created that something isn’t quite right, the aural impression and the reality shown don’t match. One begins to understand that this scene is a fantasy wish on the part of Nathanael, who dreams of finally having a triumph where everyone admires him, praises his book and cheers him. The musical means in this case is the exaggeration, the disproportionality of the proportions and sounds.
The multi-layered narrative style in Thomas Jonigk’s libretto makes it possible to capture the various perspectives of the cast. Which setting does this opera end with?
It ends with a big surprise. I don’t want to give away more than that.
(from [t]akte 2/2012)