★★★★½ New opera from Liza Lim is a work that deserves to be seen much more widely.

Cologne Opera, Germany
April 20, 2016

The stage is set like a laboratory. Musicians, dressed in white coats and various items of personal protective equipment, circulate among tables and workstations on which sit strange objects – a giant bird’s head; a mask made up of half a dozen faces; and unfamiliar-looking musical instruments. A tramp appears to be conducting. Alongside the live music are the sounds of birdsong and motorbikes. Liza Lim’s fourth opera, which has just finished a highly successful premiere run in Cologne, begins as an overwhelming, disorienting and even baffling experience. Yet by its end one’s lasting impression is of the coherence that gradually emerges and is, ultimately, sustained over 90 complex, multilayered minutes.

Tree of Codes is based upon Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2010 novel of the same title. That itself is based on The Street of Crocodiles, a collection of short stories by the pre-war Polish author Bruno Schulz. Having herself written a piece called Street of Crocodiles in 1995, when Safran Foer’s book came out, Lim knew she simply had to compose a response of her own.

The key feature of Safran Foer’s book is his use of die cutting to remove words from the text and open holes through which parts of the pages beneath can be seen. The opera’s conceit is that holes like these enable passage between states and realities, and the creation of hybrid forms in between, just as Safran Foer’s book is as much sculpture as fiction, as much one author’s text as another’s. Cologne Opera’s stage is thus populated by beings who are part-human and part-bird, plant or insect. Musikfabrik’s brilliantly versatile clarinettist Carl Rosman, playing the part of the Mutant Bird, performs as both singer and instrumentalist. The brass play with double-belled instruments, developed by Musikfabrik and with which Lim has been working for some time. The ensemble also includes a Stroh viola, whose two amplifying horns make it a visual-aural hybrid of brass and strings. At times other players use toy instruments in this most serious context.

Lim’s libretto (with dramaturgy by Claire de Ribaupierre) combines elements from both Safran Foer and Schulz, as well as from Goethe and Foucault. It tells of the psychological transformation of a son into his father, as well as of realms between life and death, and between human, animal and vegetable. The Father is a scientist, obsessed with birds and creating mutant forms of them. He is already dead, but unknown to him the laboratory workers have turned time back to give him one last day, during which the Son contends with his obscure, almost mystical legacy. Meanwhile, a storm has vivified a hybrid tree-human (Anne Delahaye), who seduces first the Son and then the Father, and later transmutes into the laboratory worker, Adela (Emily Hindrichs), who created her. When she offers the Father the bird’s head mask, he accepts it willingly, but it kills him. At the end, it is the Son himself who must wear it.

Masks, anthropomorphic transformations, instruments as proxies for the voice/prosthetics for the body – anyone familiar with Lim’s work over the last decade will have recognised many of the themes here. However, Tree of Codes not only brings these together in a fantastical piece of storytelling, but also gives rise to new depths and dimensions in Lim’s music. It contains some of her most lyrical work: Adela’s fairytale retelling of the Father’s bird-obsession; the Father’s funeral procession; the closing a capella chorus, sung by all 17 instrumentalists. A radiance that is usually just beneath her music’s busy surface has been set free. Everything seems to grow out of itself, like buds within flower buds, but at the same time articulating strong musical phrasing and dramatic pacing; this adds tremendously to that sense of coherence I mentioned before.

The brilliance of Lim’s music was matched in the costumes, scenography and even lighting (Only a series of back wall video projections seemed to add little). Among the particularly notable contributions were Julie Monot’s masks, especially the many-faced latex construction worn by Christian Miedl as the Son, disconcertingly real, as though seeing a living Dali painting. Yael Rion’s non-vocal performance as the Father, too: an actor of extraordinary appearance, perfectly cast, in a risk-filled, highly exposing performance given with absolute commitment. Musikfabrik who, through their championing of Stockhausen’s later music, have become specialists in contemporary music theatre, excelled not only as players, but also singers, actors and even stagehands; Marco Blaauw (trumpet), Axel Porath (Stroh viola), Lorelei Dowling (bassoon) and Dirk Rothbrust (percussion) delivered some of the most striking solo passages. Claims are often made for a new kind of opera, but in Tree of Codes they seemed entirely justified by the true fluidity between music and spectacle, sound and drama (a feat that few ensembles, it should be said, could have brought off as willingly and as capably as this). Astonishingly, only one more production, in Dresden, seems to be on the books. This is a work that deserves to be seen much more widely.

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